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Swiss set human rights priorities

The second session of the Human Rights Council will be closely monitored

(Keystone)

The second session of the United Nations Human Rights Council has opened in Geneva on Monday, focussing on special reports into the situation in Lebanon.

Switzerland will continue to keep a particularly close eye on the main innovation of the Human Rights Council: regular human rights reviews of all 191 UN member states.

Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, will get the session underway.

"That will be an important moment which could influence how the session unwinds and which issues are tackled," said Blaise Godet, the Swiss ambassador to the United Nations.

These issues will include several sensitive topics on which experts were asked to report by the council's discredited predecessor, the Human Rights Commission.

The four special rapporteurs who travelled to Lebanon – including Switzerland's Walter Kälin, who drew up the blueprint for the Human Rights Council – will present their conclusions.

Jean Ziegler, the outspoken Swiss special rapporteur on the right to food who has been in Beirut this week, is also expected to share his observations.

The council will also examine reports on countries such as Cuba, Cambodia, Myanmar, Somalia, Congo and the occupied Palestinian territories.

It will also discuss issues such as racism, migration, forced disappearances, freedom of religion and expression, and toxic and other dangerous substances.

Opportunity

"This will be a chance to initiate dialogue with the authors of these reports," said Godet. "The talks will be more interactive, longer and more open than those in the Human Rights Commission."

Godet said Switzerland would pay particular attention to the discussion of torture, extrajudicial executions, child soldiers, defenders of human rights, justice in countries which are making the transition to democracy, respect for human rights in the fight against terrorism, and the right to food.

"In as far as it is possible, we would like these talks to conclude with a declaration by the council, resulting from an agreement by its members. The idea is always to be able to work with one another and not against one another," he said.

"The aim is to make this council a concrete instrument with which to protect human rights and not a tribunal where bad marks are handed out. In that respect we have to reverse the thinking behind the previous institution."

For the moment however the gamble has not paid off. Two extraordinary sessions this summer – on the Palestinian territories and Lebanon – have in effect led to treaties described as disturbing by Mark Lagon, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organisation Affairs.

Swiss involvement

Godet refuses to rush to immediate judgement. "The council is still young," he said. "Switzerland will give its verdict on June 18, 2007."

That is when the introductory period of the council is set to come to an end. For its part, Switzerland is especially focused on establishing regular human rights reviews of all 191 UN member states.

Godet says this will enable human rights "health checks" of all the states.

"The idea that we favour is to collaborate with the state involved so that it reinforces its protection of human rights," he said.

As part of its commitment to this key mechanism, Switzerland will host a meeting to assess states' views on the matter in Lausanne at the end of August.

swissinfo, Frédéric Burnand in Geneva

Key facts

The second session of the United Nations Human Rights Council is meeting in Geneva from September 18 until October 6.
The Human Rights Council sat for the first time in Geneva from June 19-30.
The council will meet at least three times a year for no less than ten weeks, and can convene emergency sessions. Its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, met for just an annual six-week session.
The next sessions will take place November 27-December 8.

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In brief

Switzerland was elected to the Human Rights Council with a three-year mandate on May 9. The vote took place at the UN General Assembly in New York.

The mandate can only be renewed once. Switzerland must then cede its place to another country from the western group, before being able to stand for election again.

In the second session in September, Switzerland will present a universal index of human rights containing more than 1,000 documents on how to run the new body.

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