On human rights, how assertive can the UN be?

Fateh Azzam
6 March 2014

Few would disagree that great strides have been made since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 65 years ago.  Human rights are now integral to domestic and international discourse, and seen as essential to good governance, sustainable development and even the legitimacy of states. The United Nations is the primary international forum where human rights standards are negotiated and adopted into treaty law, and it has set up several implementation mechanisms.  But the question arises – can the UN effectively ensure the adherence by states to human rights law through its various mechanisms, given that, in international affairs, politics more often than not trumps both morality and law?

The expectation of apolitical UN action on human rights is put into perspective when we remember that the UN is an inter-governmental agency and not a world government.  All UN decisions are political and depend on sovereign states’ acquiescence and cooperation, even when supposed legal requirements are in place.   

UN human rights mechanisms, such as the Human Rights Council (HRC – which convened for one of its regular meetings in Geneva this week), the human rights treaties and their supervisory committees, and the system of independent experts and working groups known as ‘Special Procedures’, are all based on the principle of international cooperation in the implementation of voluntary commitments by states. These bodies present their reports and they are discussed; states may cajole or condemn, gently criticize or openly shame one another, but there is no mandatory enforcement of international human rights law.  Sometimes the reports of these mechanisms can pack a significant punch in terms of naming and shaming, but politics most often blocks enforcement action. 

For example, consider the reports of three recent Commissions of Inquiry established by the HRC: the United States and its allies did their best to undermine the 2009 Goldstone Report on Israeli war crimes in Gaza; Russia and its allies have been blocking action on the reports of crimes by all sides in Syria; and China will likely block action on the just-released report of the Commission of Inquiry on North Korea.

In cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, a situation might come under the scrutiny of the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, even this may be politicized as when the Security Council refers a case to the ICC.  We have seen this in the uneven performance of the ICC, where African leaders are more easily indicted than others – such as in Israel or Iraq for example.  Even more political is the formalization of humanitarian intervention into the new doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which has engendered significant debate, particularly in its application in Libya and non-application in Syria.

It’s safe to assume that, left to their own devices, states will do the absolute minimum that is necessary and politically acceptable, and will resist efforts to enforce compliance with human rights standards.   Yet, limited as the UN system may be in terms of coercive action, there are ways to make it work better.  

First, the role of national, regional and international civil society organizations (CSO) is crucially important, and their active engagement with the UN system can make it more effective.  The more CSOs provide shadow reports and document abuses and bring states’ human rights practices into open and public debate, the more difficult it is for states to sweep them under the political carpet. The recommendations of the HRC’s Universal Periodic Review, of the treaty bodies and of the independent experts can be amplified by CSOs until a critical mass is created for action to ameliorate abuses. Only when such critical mass is reached can a discussion on implementation and adherence to human rights standards be forced upon recalcitrant states.  Politics continues to play a major role, but the more public the violations are, the less wiggle room there is for abusive states and their supporters on the international scene.

Second, and perhaps less obviously, there is a growing political conviction within the UN that human rights are at the core of protecting international peace and security and this has led to a recognition of the link between democracy, development and human rights. As a result, UN agencies, funds and programs are now expected to apply the human rights-based approach (HRBA) in their programs and operations, and UNDP has been at the forefront of mainstreaming human rights in development programming. UN agencies have developed a common understanding for how UN Country Teams should incorporate human rights in their Development Assistance Frameworks (UNDAFs) at national level.  Though it attracts far less attention than debates in the Human Rights Council, the unique advantage of this programmatic approach is that it does not require political decisions; those have already been taken.  Rather, it simply requires senior UN staff in the country to take seriously their obligation to assist governments at the national level to ensure adherence to human rights treaties they have ratified, and to the global goals of gender equality and environmental sustainability. 

Of course, there is a political dimension. UNDAFs require national ownership or ‘buy-in’. States may and often do resist the incorporation of human rights standards into the UN’s development plans.  It then becomes the responsibility of UN staff to insist on it as a matter of UN policy. ‘Buy-in’ can also be interpreted to mean enlisting public support;  ‘national ownership’ should not mean only governmental ownership.  To what degree UN staff can exercise leadership and insist on implementing their human rights mandate depends on their own personal and professional commitments, but also on accountability mechanisms within the UN system, which to date have been rather weak.

 At the UN, political concerns still most often trump the moral and legal imperatives to protect human rights.  The UN human rights system exists, and it is up to the global community of activists, including UN staff, to make it work. To achieve better success, it is essential to strengthen networks for human rights advocacy by civil society across the globe, and in particular between national, regional and international organizations.  A unified voice is an amplified voice that has a much better chance of being heard.

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