At least there’s one friendly spot of colour in the grey skies over Geneva: the bright blue flag of the United Nations flies above the roof of the Palais de Nations, the international organization’s European headquarters. From Ariana Park, which surrounds the imposing old building of the League of Nations, you can usually look out over Lake Geneva to the French Alps. On this particular day, however, a curtain of cloud blocks the panorama. Elegant Geneva gives the impression of having fallen into a state of hibernation. It’s a little unusual for the city of banks, clocks and world politics.
World politics – initially that sounds much more like Washington, London or Berlin and less like Geneva. But it was here that the League of Nations was founded in 1920, the organization from which the United Nations (UN) emerged in 1945. Today, Switzerland’s second largest city is the most important UN location alongside New York and an important centre of global cooperation. More than 20 international organizations are headquartered here, including the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, the UN Human Rights Council and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In addition, there are some 160 countries represented by missions and representations as well as numerous nongovernmental organizations. You could hardly find a more international place.
The Platz der Nationen is the diplomatic hub. This is where The Broken Chair stands. It appearance is unsettling: one of its four legs is crippled. The enormous sculpture was designed by Swiss artist Daniel Berset – as a memorial for landmine victims. And as an appeal to the governments of the world not to flag in their efforts in the struggle against dangerous landmines. The symbolic force of the amputated chair is meant to radiate to the other side of the Friedensallee, to the main entrance of the UN and the 193 member nations whose flags point the way to the Palais des Nations. Especially when questions of humanitarian aid, disarmament policy and human rights are concerned, Geneva and its UN organizations constitute an important forum. Every year, diplomats and government representatives from all over the world as well as members of staff from international organizations gather in the complex of buildings at the Palais des Nations for over 9,000 meetings. At the moment, however, nothing of this is to be seen – the large conference rooms are empty. Quiet diplomacy?
Appearances are deceptive. In the background preparations are already under way for the 22nd Regular Session of the Human Rights Council. The Council is the central UN institution for human rights questions. It was founded in 2006 on the initiative of Kofi Annan, who was then UN Secretary General, with the goal of strengthening the UN’s human rights policy and replacing the Human Rights Commission. The Council advises the General Assembly and is equipped with a wide-ranging mandate to handle human rights violations. In a special procedure, known as the Universal Periodic Review, it examines the human rights situation of every UN member state every four years. In April 2013 Germany will be undergoing the “human rights inspection” for a second time after 2009. The 47 member states of the Council officially meet for ten weeks of the year in a special chamber. On its ceiling unfolds an enormous work of contemporary art by the Spaniard Miquel Barceló: over an area of 1,000 square metres he transformed the dome into a colourful ocean – with waves that hang down from the ceiling like stalactites. At the opening of the most recent Session at the end of February 2013 the German head of state, Federal President Joachim Gauck, presented an address.
The subject of human rights and the work of the Council in Geneva form a focal point of Germany’s foreign policy agenda. At the beginning of 2013 Germany again became a member of the UN Human Rights Council for three years. It already belonged to the Council from 2006 to 2009. Its renewed candidacy for the organization received a large amount of support worldwide. Seats within the Council are allocated on the basis of equitable geographical distribution. Every year elections are held for one third of the members that remain on the Council for a term of three years. Germany is one of currently nine EU countries on the Council and belongs to the Western European and Other States Group. In the November 2012 ballot in New York, 127 out of 193 UN member states voted for Germany’s membership.
“An impressive result,” says Hanns Heinrich Schumacher about this vote of confidence. The diplomat is the German Ambassador and Head of Germany’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva. Schumacher sits down in a black leather armchair for the interview in his office. “Germany has acquired a good international reputation and is perceived as an honest broker,” he says, describing the recognition for his country’s human rights policy.
Gerald Staberock also believes it is a good sign that Germany was elected onto the Human Rights Council. The German is Secretary General of the World Organisation Against Torture and a critical observer of the work of the Human Rights Council from the NGO’s perspective. However, Staberock also sees his organization as a partner. “Cooperation between governments and nongovernmental organizations is necessary.” Using funding from the Federal Foreign Office’s human rights fund, his organization set up an office in Tunisia to support defenders of human rights and document cases of torture. What expectation does the lawyer have of Germany’s participation in the Council? “I hope that Germany will contribute more strongly on controversial issues.”
Germany’s commitment on the Human Rights Council, explains Ambassador Schumacher, is concentrated, among other things, on three major questions: the right to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, the right to adequate housing and the struggle against human trafficking. “The subjects of water and housing are two fundamental components of dignified human life,” underlines the German Ambassador. “We want to emphasize their universal importance.” At best this will succeed through a political resolution at the UN. The path to that usually entails intensive discussions and negotiations with other states whose different attitudes and opposing interests have to be overcome. Supraregional initiatives have better prospects of success, stresses the diplomat, who has already represented Germany’s interests in Bangkok, Baghdad, Helsinki and Windhoek. This strategy can be illustrated by the example of water: Germany has built up a circle of supporters with the Blue Group, which currently consists of eleven states and is promoting the implementation of the right to safe drinking water. When it comes to the fight against human trafficking, Germany has already found an ally in the Philippines, with which Germany is already working closely and attempting to convince other countries of their joint position.
Nevertheless, Ambassador Schumacher remains realistic: “The debate within the Human Rights Council is a process; again and again there are new challenges.” The work of the Council is complicated above all by the fact that new human rights violations are registered almost every day from the world’s crisis regions. Ambassador Schumacher therefore considers united action by as many states as possible to be crucial for credible protection of human rights: the more supporters, the greater the moral authority of the Council.