Imagine it is your first day working at the Human Rights Council (HRC). Perhaps it is even your first day at the United Nations. Your plane arrives in Geneva on a Friday afternoon. After a few hours and a downpour, you find yourself under the colourful stalactites of Room XX in Palais des Nations, probably the most famous meeting hall in Geneva. The Council is having its General Debate under item three—which deals with all thematic human rights issues—and you are tasked to help non-governmental representatives take the floor at the correct moment. The line extends beyond the doors of the conference room. (You will later learn that this debate and its lines are always the longest ones). Soaked and disoriented, you cut an awkward figure as you try to lead a routine that everybody in line knows much better than you.
As you accumulate sessions under your belt, however, you become well-acquainted with the ins and outs of this and other interlocking choreographies at the core of the Council. Indeed, you realize that working at the secretariat is like playing a part in a well-rehearsed ballet. It is elegant and orderly in form, but there is always an undercurrent of drama and tension present. As a secretariat staff member, you learn to maintain a sense of composure even while working energetically to meet the high expectations placed upon you—a swan serenely gliding on water, kept afloat by furiously paddling its webbed feet beneath the surface.
It soon becomes second nature, as happens to everyone who works at the Council. Suddenly, we find that we are able to recite the agenda items backwards and can quote from Resolution 5/1, which adopted the Council’s institution-building package in 2007. We assimilate the Council’s many unwritten practices —as well as their exceptions. (Nowadays, we are fortunate enough to find much of that catalogued and easily retrievable in Eric Tistounet’s 2020 book: The UN Human Rights Council: A Practical Anatomy). We develop increasingly precise estimates for the duration of each dialogue and can predict where the inevitable delays will come from.
In spirit, we take on the qualities of the metteur en scène, who wishes for clockwork precision while staging an ultimately improvisational performance, and the Confucian master of rituals who cares for the proper execution of the rites. Fastidiousness is of the essence.
This careful preparation of the sessions begins well in advance. Together with other parts of the house, the Council secretariat monitors and records all resolutions creating mandates for the Council and maps out a detailed schedule of all debates that will be held, and reports that will be presented during each session. Long documents painting a life-size picture of the session are scrutinized by several pairs of eyes before they make it to publication. Colleagues pull off the feat of coordinating the busy schedules of podium speakers, including the High Commissioner himself and mandate holders flying from all over the world to Geneva, and weave it into a delicately balanced program of work.
When the Council is in session, the typical day of a secretariat staff starts early—often in a depopulated and half-lit Room XX, more grotto-like than ever. Scenarios containing the run of the show will have already been drafted and lists of speakers for both delegates and non-governmental representatives drawn up beforehand, but all of that might not hold up before the stack of e-mails that have accumulated during the intervening hours. Last-minute changes that are announced are the good ones; more worrisome are unforeseen issues that remain undercover until their time to detonate.
The pandemic-era adjustments added a new layer of complexity—one teeming with such traps and pitfalls. As Council sessions became hybrid, the secretariat also had to adapt. Human rights officers learned more about the intricacies of video conferencing software and different types of video codecs than they ever wished for. Trusty specialists from UNOG have relieved us from most of this burden, but there is often no time to wait for help. One cannot just sit idly by when it is likely that the whole room might turn to the secretariat’s desk, if and when the presenter cannot deliver her closing remarks and there is little time before the end of the meeting. As a result, the staff’s routine now includes hopping on Zoom meeting rooms and testing many video messages in a bid to reduce the likelihood of such mishaps as much as possible, even if we ultimately had to come to terms with the fact that computers seem to have a will of their own.
It is an unfortunate reality that, in the midst of this hustle and bustle, the staff often cannot follow the substantive discussions taking place. And it is the commitment to the substance—human rights—that brought us to the Council in the first place! In the end, there are few opportunities to collect oneself and listen with undivided attention. Listening becomes teleological and predictive: we are watchful of statements or turns of phrase that might trigger rights of reply and procedural motions, as we need to calculate whether additional time should be requested in advance.
Whilst much of our days might be filled with the minutiae of formal details and bureaucratic tasks, the staff are always aware that we are working within the halls of history. The significance of this work is not taken lightly, and it is this sense of responsibility that pushes us to strive for excellence.
We are especially reminded of that during the special sessions of the Council, when it considers urgent and currently developing human rights emergencies. Only in the past two years, seven special sessions were convened by the Council, and it was often the only intergovernmental body able to tackle such complex and fraught situations. Likewise, the adoption of historical texts—such as the 2021 resolution recognizing the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right—serves as a source of inspiration and fulfilment for us. The promotion and protection of human rights takes many forms.