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UN Suspends Human Rights Council Session Due to Coronavirus

FILE - Overview of the session of the Human Rights Council during the speech of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Feb. 27, 2020.

The United Nations has suspended the current 43rd session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, because of the spread of coronavirus. The council was due to end its current session on March 20.

The president of the Human Rights Council, Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, says the fast-moving coronavirus has had a profound impact on the work of the council. She says almost every day this week the United Nations has been forced to take increasingly restrictive measures to create a safe environment for the hundreds of delegates in attendance.

"When WHO declared that this was a pandemic, which stretched to well over 100 countries and when we also had recommendations by the Swiss authorities, by UNOG [U.N. Office at Geneva] and actually a lot of worries from various delegations, we said the responsible thing now to do is to suspend the session in an orderly way,” she said.

Tichy-Fisslberger says a number of important decisions scheduled to take place next week will be made before the council is suspended Friday. One of the most important decisions is the appointment of 19 mandate holders. These are the rapporteurs and experts whose job it is to investigate the human rights situations in countries such as Myanmar, Iran and Mali. Some report on specific issues such as torture, enforced disappearances, adequate housing and the right to food.

Human rights spokesman Rolando Gomez tells VOA appointing the mandate holders before the meeting ends will avoid a so-called protection gap.

“They would be, in theory, able to conduct country visits, to report back or send out press releases that highlight important concerns voiced by the international community or by those who may fall victim to some of human rights violations in their area," said Gomez. "So, again the protection measures will be put in place. There will not be any gap. There will not be a period whereby there is an absence of human rights attention on particular issues. And, this is supremely important.”

If there is a massive human rights crisis that demands the council’s attention in coming weeks, Gomez says provisions have been made so the council can address those issues, even if that is done in a virtual manner.

The Human Rights Council has held 28 special sessions on crisis issues since 2006, including on the deteriorating human rights situation of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the conflict in Syria, as well as attacks, abuses and violations committed by terrorist groups, such as Boko Haram.

Because of the suspension, Gomez says important debates on racial discrimination, technical assistance and other matters will have to be put on hold. He says the adoption of some 30 to 40 draft resolutions also will have to be postponed until the council session resumes.