My three weeks at the 27th Human Rights Council In Geneva: listening to atrocity, nurturing hope

Estela de Carlotto with the Argentine Ambassador to Geneva at HRC September side event

Estela de Carlotto, President of Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo at the Human Rights Council, September 2014  Pictured with the Argentine Ambassador, after a side event about her 37 years as a human rights defender

My three weeks at the Human Rights Council in Geneva…staying centred through multiple side events about atrocities in Gaza, Kashmir,and in many other places.

I attend the Human Rights Council in Geneva because I have a job to do there. I advocate for palliative care as a human right, which means I introduce myself to people who might be able to influence national and world opinion regarding the need to improve palliative care and access to pain medicines. I attend meetings of the Council and side events that might be related to the issue and where I might be able to contribute and influence the agenda. Some side events I go to are not work-related though. I go because I want to learn more about the human rights violations that are taking place in different parts of the world where life is infinitely less comfortable than the one I enjoy, and that is the “base camp” of my personal and professional human rights advocacy.

The litanies of atrocities recited at the Human Rights Council daily are simultaneously excruciating and anaesthetising. They are numbing, if as a listener and participant, you simply can’t take the amount of pain that the speakers in Room XX itself, where the HRC meets, or at the side events, are compelled to dish up during their three minute interventions. I watched myself numbing out one day when NGO speaker after speaker recited the litany of child rapes, sexual slavery, and desperation involved in trafficking and slavery in a significant number of countries. I realised I hadn’t heard what the previous two speakers during the session had said because I was paying attention to something else, probably something on my laptop or smartphone.

That bothered me. I was critical of the delegates who were sitting there checking their cell phones and Facebook pages or openly talking to one another when one speaker or another, their colleagues in fact, would take the floor. And now I couldn’t listen either! So I started going to side events, during sessions I did not need to attend in the chamber, so I could pay more focused attention to the pain and horror that representatives of those who were being attacked on the ground, were charged with presenting to the world. I learned more about Gaza, and the atrocities that took place in recent months and are ongoing, where the Israeli imposed pain and frustration and sheer brutalisation of a population is only escalating. One presenter showed the newsreel film of the Israeli and Lebanese massacres of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila in 1982, a sight I would never forget after seeing it at the time on the American television news, sandwiched between advertisements for denture cream and weight loss products.

The Sabra and Shatila film’s narrator, who was present at the site after the massacre, talked about the piles of bodies they encountered as they entered the camp, and how when he walked through it, shouting “we are with the International Committee of the Red Cross,” could you please let us know if you are still alive” — or something like that, no one came forward because the Lebanese militias had also been going through the camp saying that, and then shooting anyone who came forward. So the massacre survivors all stayed hidden until one thirteen year old child was the first to stand up from a pile of bodies. “It was like the Resurrection” the Palestinian narrator said, “it was like Christ rising from the dead.” I will never forget it as long as I live.” And after that brave, traumatised child stood up, other people started coming forward, and they were able to take care of the survivors as best they could, and bury the two thousand dead, one by one, respectfully, their feet turned in the correct direction toward Mecca, the bodies of men and women laid out correctly.

I also went to several side events on Kashmir and even spoke on one panel about the UN Security Council resolutions on Jammu Kashmir, which date back to 1948, the human rights atrocities India is perpetrating there with impunity, and the relevant international law that, at least on paper, supports a negotiated political settlement and the possibility of an improved human rights situation. The model is Argentina, at least partially, and Argentina had a lot of airtime and centre stage time during the first week of the HRC, as Estela Carlotto, the president of the grandmothers (Abuelas) of the Plaza de Mayo, was able to reunite with her grandson, whose mother (Estella’s daughter) the generals had disappeared and killed during the “dirty war”. The “dictadura” or the Argentine military, killed thousands of mostly young people and students, tortured tens of thousands, and outright stole and “placed” more than five hundred babies born in captivity, in families of high ranking members of the elite that could not have children of their own.

But history sometimes comes full circle, as we saw and heard at the side events sponsored by the Argentine mission, which told the story of the country’s emergence from dictatorship to governance under the rule of law, a truth and reconciliation commission, and justice for the perpetrators of atrocities. One miracle, carefully nurtured by the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared as well as multiple anonymous human rights defenders, is the genetic databank, and its potential to match the DNA of the grandparents or near relatives with the grown children (the stolen babies of the parents who were disappeared and killed) and who are now looking for, and finding, their “real” families.

In two of the events I went to, Ms. Estela Carlotto thanked the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Human Rights Council and other international NGOs for the support they gave he grandmothers and mothers of the disappeared during their struggle under the dictatorship. The tenacity of the mothers, the commitment of the transnational human rights community, and the vision of a different global community allows hope, no matter how fragile, to take root and possibly flourish in a community that would otherwise despair. If it can be done in Argentina, it can be done elsewhere. It takes passion, tenacity, and as Estela says — above all “love.” Amor.

In the context of the litany of despair recited by human rights defenders from Gaza, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, the Turkmen area of Iraq, the Punjab, Kashmir, and Oman, where poets are imprisoned for decades for standing up for free speech, such victories of vision are lamps on the lamp stand that cannot and must not be hidden. The Human Rights Council has within itself the resources to challenge atrocities and set the agenda for a world whose cornerstone is human dignity, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rather than a world where some powerful groups treat others as human waste, or “homo sacer” — the scapegoat that can be sacrificed so that we, the people, need not evolve and learn to meet the collective challenges of being human more courageously.