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Reflections on my stay in Geneva
Volume 22 Number 2
Tuesday, 19 January 2010 14:14

by Carlo V. Cleofe

Geneva is a city widely known as the headquarters of many of the agencies of the United Nations (UN). It is also a city that has the second highest quality of living standard in the whole world. Last March, I was given the opportunity to visit Geneva again as a participant in the Advance Geneva Training Course (AGTC) on Human Rights and International Law and later as part of the lobby team for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the Philippines.

For a non-government organization (NGO) worker coming from a southern country such as the Philippines, the trip afforded me to gain insights and understanding not only of the dynamics of the UN and how civil society organizations based in Geneva lobby, but it also provided me a chance to reflect on the differences in the culture and level of development of Geneva compared to the Philippines.

Arrival and the AGTC Training

I arrived in Geneva in the evening of March 4 via Amsterdam. The moment I stepped out of the airport, I was hit by the numbing cold; it was the height of winter and I was severely underdressed for the weather. I took a cab to the hotel that the sponsoring organization has billeted me in, the Hotel Drake Longchamps which is in the middle of the city proper, the Paqui district.

At the hotel, I inquired about the room I was supposed to occupy. The man at the reception, a skinhead 30-something French guy, in an impatient tone told me that my name was not in the list. I insisted, much to his irritation, and checked again, and consequently found my name and gave me the keys to my room. This same guy manifested his impatient and dismissive attitude toward some of the participants of the training, particularly toward the non-Caucasian participants. Thankfully, after a week, I never saw him again. This is to draw attention to the “implied” racism of some Geneva residents and which I, as an Asian am acutely more perceptive of. This is not only my personal observation; it was also shared and felt by some of my fellow participants coming from “southern” countries.

The next day we were picked up from the hotel by Chantal Mutamuriza, a lawyer and human rights activist from Burundi and who is part of the human rights defenders program of the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), the organizer of the AGTC.

On the first day of the training, the participants introduced themselves and the advocacy their respective organization is working on by making a drawing representing this. The organizers then gave a background on ISHR, its history and mandate and an overview of the training course and objectives.

The AGTC is offered twice a year over a period of three and a half weeks. The main objective of this course is to empower human rights organizations by training their representatives to effectively use the UN human rights mechanisms.
The course addresses theoretical and practical aspects of international human rights law and the role of NGOs to improve implementation of human rights treaties and standards. The training sessions are facilitated by pedagogies such as role-plays, debates, group discussions and presentations by experts and participants. This is supplemented by informal learning through the attendance of meetings and seminars.
For the next three and a half weeks, we were introduced to different topics that discussed the UN charter based system, specifically the role of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) and the UPR mechanism, the role of Special Procedures with special stress on the Human Rights Defenders mandate, lobby work within the UNHRC, and a discussion on International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights and other important issues on human rights.

Aside from the discussions, part of the course was also to observe the sessions of the UNHRC, which was quite interesting but which some participants have noted, lacks feedback in terms of reflecting it to the realities on the ground. In my own observation, although the topics discussed and the level of expertise of the speakers are truly remarkable; the speakers include representatives from the country missions and officers from the different offices of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHRCH), however the manner of transmitting the information is “academic” resulting in the “gap” between discussing the theory and actually providing the practical tools on how to apply this theory into practice.
But it must be stressed that in spite of this shortcoming, which is quite understandable, since most of the trainers are from the offices in Geneva and can not presume to know the actual situation in the countries of the different participants, the AGTC still is a very enriching learning experience since it provides a chance to meet with human rights defenders from other countries and exchange experiences. The AGTC also provides a venue to meet with key responsible players in the UNHRC and the OHCHR, and it offers the opportunity for activists to visit Geneva and do important lobby work at the UN.
Traveling to Geneva is quite an expensive affair, and if not for the help of NGOs like the ISHR, most of the NGOs from southern countries would be hard put to raise the funds necessary for the lobby work at the UNHRC. It is in this sense that the ISHR, through the AGTC, contributes greatly not just in providing theoretical knowledge but more importantly, in helping to bring the voices of local NGOs and civil society organizations to the discourse occurring at the UNHRC by providing the venue for these voices to be heard.
Meeting with Filipino Groups and Lobbying for the UPR

Aside from attending the AGTC, my “mission” in Geneva was to lay the ground work for the lobbying on the UPR of the Philippines that was scheduled in April. In fact this was the most important aspect of my sojourn in Geneva.
To help guide me in this work, I met with Geneva-based Filipina lawyer and human rights activist Cecilia Jimenez. Cej as she is called by friends and colleagues in the Philippine human rights movement, is one of the pioneers in lobbying at the UN. Her input and work in the field of human rights, in relation to highlighting the key human rights issues and concerns not only of the Philippines but also of the whole Asian region, has been very invaluable for Asian NGOs.
We met during the second week of my stay in Geneva. In our meeting, I presented the objectives of our lobby work at the UNHRC, which are to ensure that the UPR process would reflect not only the report made by the Philippine government but would also reflect the voices of Philippine civil society; to ensure that the recommendations would address the issues and propose concrete reforms on the ground; highlight the current human rights situation in the Philippines in order to gather support for the demands of civil society.
Doing lobby work at the UN is not that different from doing lobby work at the local level. It is just that in the UN, one must be very professional.  And by this, I mean the demands one puts forth must be backed by credible and reliable data and must not just be mere political blah. One must also learn the art of being assertive without being antagonistic, or in other words, learn the art of diplomacy. And when meeting with representatives of country missions, one must also be clear, concise, and direct to the point when delivering the demands that one wants to be considered.
In Geneva, connections can make a lot of difference. One must know the right people to talk to and approach. This is where the help of Cej Jimenez was very important. Having worked with the different international organizations and being based in Geneva, Cej knew whom to talk with and how to approach them.
During my stay in Geneva, I was able to meet with people who greatly helped the Philippine civil society lobby. Different organizations lent their hands and their names for the different activities that were organized such as the side event on the Philippine human rights situation which we held during the 7th Session of the UNHRC last March, and the UPR briefing we conducted during the UPR session in April.
These organizations include Amnesty International – London, Human Rights Watch, International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum – Asia), Conectas, and of course ISHR. Other organizations such as Rights and Democracy and Conference of NGOs in Consultative Status with the UN (CONGO) also helped us drumbeat support and spread awareness for our lobby work by inviting us to speak in different fora that they organized.
In the course of our lobby work, we were able to meet with 13 country missions and forward the lobby paper to 11 others. During the actual review, 11 states asked questions and forwarded recommendations that reflect the demands that were in our lobby paper.
My visit also presented me the chance to meet with organizations representing the Filipino community in Geneva. One of these organizations was the Geneva Forum for Filipino Concerns (GFPC), an organization working on migrant rights issues and assisting Filipino NGOs doing lobby work in Geneva. Through the GFPC, I was invited to speak at different community fora to discuss the human rights situation in the Philippines and share the work that we do.
In the course of my stay in Geneva to do lobby work, I got to know people; got the chance to share their stories, their views and their opinions. And because of this interaction, my views and own opinions became broader, and more enriched by ideas and opinions that I may not have the chance to hear and discover if I was just stuck in a little corner of the planet.
I found out that no matter what the cultural divide is, or the differences in the color of one’s skin is, or the difference in religion, creed and beliefs are, one thing remains universal – the fact that we love, we live, we enjoy life and our humanity.  And it is in this context that the respect for and protection of human rights become not just mere theory but a real and tangible call that everyone, everywhere must make an effort to fully realize. As Mark Twain once said, “Nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature puts in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people”.

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