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Inaugural session of UN Human Rights Council

Inaugural session of UN Human Rights Council marked by progress on key issues

Ushering in a new era in the way the international community responds to rights abuses, the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council has concluded its inaugural session with decisive action on both fundamental protections and pressing concerns.

At Friday's close of the Council's two-week session, members agreed on positive steps to address five pressing human rights issues: the situation of human rights in the occupied Arab territories, including Palestine; support for the Abuja Agreement; avoiding incitement to hatred and violence for reasons of religion or race; the human rights of migrants; and the role of human rights defenders in promoting and protecting human rights.

On the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories, the Council adopted a resolution requesting the relevant special rapporteurs to report to the next session of the Council on the Israeli human rights violations in occupied Palestine; and deciding to undertake substantive consideration of the human rights violations and implications of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and other occupied Arab territories at its next session and to incorporate this issue in its following sessions.

The Council was also requested by the 21 of its 47 members - more than the one third required for action - to convene a special session on the situation of human rights in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories. The President of the Council, Ambassador Luis Alfonso de Alba of Mexico, said he was holding consultations to see when it could be scheduled as soon as possible. In light of the fact that the four-week session of the Economic and Social Council was beginning on 3 July, they were even considering holding the Special Session during the lunch break. A decision would be announced by Monday, he said.

With regard to an incitement to racial and religious hatred and the promotion of tolerance, the Council adopted a resolution deciding to request the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to report to the next session on this phenomenon.

During the session, the Council adopted by consensus a landmark treaty to prevent and prohibit enforced disappearances. The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances defines the practice of enforced disappearances as a crime and as a crime against humanity when it is widespread or systematic. The Convention, which focuses on preventive measures as well as the rights of victims, is being forwarded to the General Assembly for final adoption.

The Council also adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which reaffirms the right of self-determination of indigenous peoples and sets out other indigenous rights, including the right to protection against actions taken without free, prior and informed consent; the right to traditional lands and resources; and the right of indigenous peoples to establish and control their own educational systems providing education in their own languages. The Declaration will also be forwarded to the General Assembly's September session.

Addressing the issue of torture, the Council called upon all States to ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which entered into force during the Council session, on 22 June. That optional pact establishes a mechanism for in-country inspections of places of detention in order to prevent acts of torture.

The Council replaced the UN Commission on Human Rights, which was widely criticized, among other reasons, for having violators among its members. The Council, which will scrutinize the human rights performance of all States starting with its own members, decided to set up a Working Group that will develop the procedures and timing of this "Universal Periodic Review" over the coming months.

To ensure there is no gap in human rights protection during the transition from the Commission, the Council extended all the independent fact-finding mechanisms of that body for one year.

Despite the transitional nature of this first session and its time constraints, civil society groups contributed throughout, including four prominent human rights defenders who addressed the high-level segment, the participation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in interactive dialogues, and the inclusion of NGO representatives in all informal consultations which were held in parallel to the session.

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