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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Iceland's statement at the 40th session of the Human Rights Council

Human Rights Council
Geneva, 25 February 2019
Address by
H.E Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson
Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland

Mr./Madame President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen.
When I addressed this chamber one year ago, I did not know that Iceland would soon after be elected to serve on the Human Rights Council. For Iceland, it was a proud moment, made even more meaningful as we celebrated 100 years of sovereignty in 2018. I thank you for your support.

Mr./Madame President, I have sometimes been asked what useful purpose it serves to be a member of the Human Rights Council. There are those who deem it merely a talking shop. Others argue that the Council has been guilty of bias – that it spends too much time debating human rights violations in some countries, while ignoring similar or worse situations in others.

My response is that yes, the Human Rights Council certainly has its flaws. For me though, the answer to the question is clearly not to disengage with the Council because of these imperfections, but rather to engage even more. Why? Because if it is broken, we need to fix it. 

This Council is and should be the primary arena for debating and advancing human rights at the national and international level.

Most importantly, we must not forget that the Council has been successful on many fronts. Only last September, it came together to pass landmark resolutions on the dire human rights situations in Venezuela, Myanmar and Yemen. 

Similarly, the UPR has proven to be of utmost importance as it allows each Member State – even those that may think they are beyond reproach – to listen to the comments and questions of others, to receive criticism and recommendations to improve their human rights record.

Overall, the Human Rights Council has proven to be a valuable platform for advocacy on behalf of those left voiceless and have their rights ignored or violated in all parts of the world. 

Nevertheless, and I want to stress this part: The Council could and should do even more, and Iceland will, for its part, strive to support efforts to that effect - in the session underway and in future sessions. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

When the Human Rights Council was established more than ten years ago, we made it clear that Council members should “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and “fully co-operate with the Council”.

As a new member of the Council, and as a first-time member of the Council, Iceland has pledged to act in accordance with this standard. Regrettably, however, many Member States have proven unwilling to do the same. States which join the Council should lead by example and expect their own human rights record to be subject to particular scrutiny during their time as members. 

We have in this body highlighted the situation in the Philippines, where reports of extrajudicial killings have reached new heights with some estimates up to 27.000 people killed with impunity. It is, therefore, a concern when a re-election to this Council is claimed to justify these killings as a legitimate part of the so called “war on drugs”.

The question we must ask ourselves is whether we are not, by electing and re-electing countries to this Council that have less than stellar human rights records, to put it mildly – playing into the hands of those who argue and accuse this Council of not being a force for good but rather a protector of human-rights abusers.
Mr./Madame President,
Iceland is not only a first-time member of the Human Rights Council, but also the smallest country to be elected to the Council. We believe more countries should be encouraged to serve as members, of all sizes and strength, to expand its reach and impact. We advocate for the full participation of small states from all corners of the world and hope our election can serve as an inspiration.  

Large and powerful member states tend to run repeatedly for membership, thereby making it harder for smaller countries to gain a seat at the table. One could argue that this is the ultimate proof that the Council matters greatly, but on the other hand, this often blocks the way for others, including smaller members of the United Nations.
In our opinion, we ought to consider a rotational basis of membership and ensure that all those that desire to serve on the Council can do so. Human rights are universal and belong to all of us, big and small, and we should all be able to engage fully.

Mr./Madame President,
I would like to add my voice to those who have in this chamber expressed concern about the rising intolerance against migrants and minorities, also in mainland Europe. We also see a worrying trend in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia where individuals are targeted for hate and discrimination simply for their faith. We cannot return to our past of us versus them, of indiscriminate hate and fear. 

I am also concerned about increasing repression, through arrests and detention of human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and judges. Let me in this context draw attention to the independence of the judiciary in countries such as Turkey, where it has come under increased scrutiny, and call on the Turkish Government to ensure fair proceedings.
The brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has confirmed took place in its consulate in Istanbul, further highlights the plight of journalists and human rights defenders. Widespread arbitrary arrests, torture and the persecution of human rights defenders for peacefully exercising their fundamental rights is unacceptable – always and everywhere. I cannot mention Saudi Arabia without also stressing the urgent need for the Kingdom to improve the status of women’s human rights. 

We must also continue to advocate for political resolution of disputes; for the rights of all citizens to be upheld and, in the case of Venezuela, for the peaceful return to democracy – and for humanitarian assistance to be allowed to reach those in need.

Finally, repeated reports of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex individuals, including in Chechnya and Tanzania are also of great concern to us.  On this point, I want to highlight our pledge to put the human rights of LGBTI individuals in the forefront of our membership of the Human Rights Council.

I am also pleased to announce Iceland´s intention to become a regular contributor to the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner´s work in this field. We got it right decades ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights when we set out that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. This means everyone, irrespective of their gender, sexual orientation or gender identity.

I thank you.


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