Geneva’s Midnight Secret: Reform’s Missed Deadline

Geneva has many secrets, and now there is one more. Diplomats, activists and journalists close to the UN Human Rights Council have been covering up the fact that president Luis Alfonso de Alba missed the legal deadline for concluding the mandated one year of negotiations on his proposed reform package.The deadline was June 18 at midnight, and he missed it. Missed, to be sure, by only a couple of minutes at most, but unmistakably missed. So why are so many writing that the president had just made the deadline, when in fact he had just missed it? The issue may seem relatively small compared to the scandal of the adoption that never was (of that we shall write soon), but it reveals a troubling mindset among those who swear fealty to institutions of the rule of law.


Deadline Defined

Midnight was the legal deadline on several fronts. First, it was the deadline established under last year’s General Assembly Resolution 60/251, which gave the new council one year to finalize procedures for the new universal periodic review mechanism and to complete its review of the independent experts. Second, midnight was the deadline for De Alba’s one-year term as president. Third, the group of 47 countries that had negotiated the package automatically ended its term at midnight, rotating to a new group that included eight different countries.

Deadline Missed Delegates on Monday, June 18, waited all day in the lounge and corridors for the closed-door negotiations to conclude. Late at night they were summoned to the plenary. Yet as the deadline approached, there was still no sign of the president. We watched the clock. The deadline was missed. Moments later—precisely 20 seconds past the deadline according to the Internet atomic clock visible on one delegate’s laptop—the president ascended the podium to make his announcement. He said that “there is an agreement on a final text” and proposed that “you accept this text as compromise and that tomorrow the council can take action” and formally adopt it. He received thunderous applause, a standing ovation, and emotional embraces from High Commissioner Louise Arbour. Everyone went home. (In the morning, however, it emerged that that the president had apparently ignored Canada’s refusal to grant consent.)

Turning Back the Clock

Curiously, many reported that the president had just made the deadline. Or they obscured the issue. In doing so, some were likely deliberate.

Geneva’s Le Temps, possibly relying on a Swissinfo wire story, turned back the clock to have De Alba at the podium at “minuit moins une”—one minute before midnight. Le Temps for the past year has acted as the unofficial spinmeister for the council and its failures, so that was hardly surprising. Yet even our diligent NGO colleagues at Human Rights Watch reported the package as having been agreed without a vote “just minutes before a midnight deadline,” thus turning the clock back even further.

Others might just have been sloppy. Reuters reported the package as having been agreed “on Monday,” instead of early Tuesday. Agence France Presse had it as “down to the Monday 2200 GMT deadline.”

The one who got it exactly right was the Associated Press: “Shortly after a midnight deadline expired…”

Rule of Law

Privately, a number of diplomats and UN officials on Monday had fretted about how to “stop the clock” if necessary. One escape much bandied about was that the deadline could be extended six hours according to the time of New York, home of the General Assembly. Apart from the obvious insult to Geneva, it was a frivolous argument. The terms in question all began on Geneva time. One cannot begin according to one time zone and end using another.

And so when the deadline was missed, most decided simply to pretend the deadline was made. This hardly reflects well upon a community and an institution ostensibly committed to due process and the rule of law.

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