Andrea Petranyi, Head of the Human Rights team at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Cyprus in Geneva, writes about Cyprus' decision to run for a seat at the UN Human Rights Council


Geneva, 2 July 2021

A few days ago, we entered the eerily almost-empty Palais des Nations in Geneva, Ambassador George Kasoulides, Christos Makriyiannis and me. It was the first time since March 2020 that we had the opportunity to go to the Palais. Together. Cyprus’ Geneva-based diplomats.

The occasion was the two-day intersessional workshop on cultural heritage as mandated by the Cypriot-led and inspired Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution 37/17 of March 2018.

But there’s a story behind the story. Like the rest of the world, the seminar fell victim to the pandemic. Mandated to take place before July 2020, this was not to be, as became apparent in the first of many calls from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in April 2020. Swiss lockdown meant in-person meetings and travel could not take place. How on earth will you bring together experts from across the world for a workshop under these circumstances? Not to mention, the United Nations Office in Geneva was still experimenting with virtual platforms and hadn’t yet found one that worked. (Arguably, it still hasn’t).

Some weeks later, a second phone call: “OHCHR is facing a liquidity crisis. The budget for the intersessional workshop for 2020 has been cut, we cannot go ahead this year.”

Not accepting “no” for an answer, the Cyprus Permanent Mission reached out to all other core groups whose mandates had been unceremoniously thrown off the 2020 HRC agenda. An “omnibus decision” at the September 2020 session, breathed fresh life into our postponed activities, and locked in budgets for their realization in 2021.

And so, after various tribulations we managed to book 14-15 June 2021 for the intersessional workshop to “develop appropriate tools for the dissemination of an approach to the protection, restoration and preservation of cultural heritage that promotes universal respect for cultural rights by all”. Cyprus’ three-person-strong diplomatic team in Geneva was finally there, at the Palais from where the intersessional workshop was projected in six languages. Virtually, of course (cue unavoidable technical glitches as people logged in across the globe).

Cyprus’ objectives were two-fold: solidify a rights-based approach to cultural heritage protection within the realm of the HRC, while underscoring that the Council of Europe’s Nicosia Convention on Offences relating to Cultural Property with one further ratification would become open to non-Council of Europe states.

It was thus our privilege that the person under whose aegis the Nicosia Convention came into being, former Foreign Minister of Cyprus Ioannis Kasoulides, agreed to present on mobilising governments for the protection of cultural heritage. Two speakers from the Nicosia Convention’s Strasbourg Secretariat detailed the relevance of this unique multilateral instrument coming into force, since it’s the only one that goes after looters and traffickers.

The story, however, as with all things Geneva, doesn’t end there. Because the Cyprus-led resolution of 2018 on Cultural Rights and the Protection of Cultural Heritage was the springboard of another idea: that the time has come to elevate Cyprus’ role at the HRC further, and by doing so, amplifying our voice, and with it our contribution, towards the protection and promotion of human rights at the global level. 

Cyprus is not just a “problem” after all. As observers at the Council, we have aptly demonstrated that we have an active voice in the morphing of dozens of initiatives at the HRC by proposing amendments to some resolutions, vociferously arguing against the inclusion of others, while also representing the 27 EU members in discussions on climate change. Side events? Organised. National statements? Done and dusted. Cross-regional joint statements? The most successful one in HRC history. Resolutions? Drafted, tabled and unanimously adopted. Furthermore, we know from experience that Cyprus can bring together countries with polar opposite views around a table to forge consensus, often more adeptly than bigger States.

Why? Because we have no overriding national agendas and because we have proven that we can punch above our weight when we put our minds to it.

How best, then, to realise this idea? By claiming, for the first time, a seat at the UN Human Rights Council which is made up of 47 elected Member States with a right to vote on the various initiatives.

And so, in February, during the High-Level Session of the HRC, Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides announced Cyprus’ candidature to become a member of the Human Rights Council, for the term 2025-2027, with the elections in New York set for October 2024. 

From proclamation we must now map and implement an astute action plan. Because behind every successful candidature for the HRC, stands a strong team of dedicated women and men, working together from capital, Geneva and New York.

Can we rise to the challenge? I have no doubt. The recipe for success requires a whole-of-Government strategic vision, a tangible timeline, consistent teamwork between colleagues in Nicosia and across Cyprus’ entire network of diplomatic missions, as well as determination from focal points at line Ministries in capital. Place in a pre-heated oven, and voilà: m/bake it happen!

We’ll be in for a treat.