Special Procedures Database
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What can the United States effectively do when it comes to promoting human rights? How can it best work through the United Nations to make a difference for victims in Afghanistan, Iran or Cambodia?
These questions are very much on the minds of Obama administration officials. When the administration decided to join the UN’s Human Rights Council despite skepticism and outright hostility from the Council’s conservative critics, the administration promised to work from within to promote reform, increase attention on the most serious human rights crises and reduce political bias against Israel.
There are signs the strategy is starting to work. Thanks to an energetic if quiet campaign to build cross-regional coalitions, U.S. diplomats have managed to extend the Council’s scrutiny of human rights violations in Sudan, Somalia and Cambodia, secure new fact-finding mandates on freedom of association and women’s rights, protect the independence of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, and deny Iran a seat on the Council. On Israel, however, it remains largely alone in opposing resolutions censuring the government for its attacks in Gaza and the humanitarian aid flotilla, in opposing resolutions critical of the government’s action in Palestine, and in trying to remedy the imbalanced attention it receives.
After 18 months of extensive research into the work of the Human Rights Council, we have found that the U.S. strategy to invest in the Council’s independent experts is a sound one. These volunteers are chosen by governments for their professional expertise to investigate human-rights situations around the world, make recommendations for corrective action and report to the world on their findings. In operation since the late 1970s, they have been called “the crown jewel” of the U.N. human rights system. Yet no one had put that proposition to the test of independent and rigorous examination.
After our own examination of how governments respond to the thousands of communications and dozens of field missions carried out by these independent UN experts, we found convincing evidence that they serve as catalysts for rights, prompting governments to reexamine and correct actions that violated human rights across a broad range of categories. By shedding light on issues like the fate of the disappeared, mistreatment of political prisoners, fair access to health services and violence against women, these monitors tackle the hard issues and elevate them to the highest levels of political power. That alone has an impact in creating a public record about abuses that some would like to hide, increasing pressure for remedies, and perhaps most importantly giving a voice to victims.
Some governments respond to this pressure through legislative reforms or executive action, and often in ways that directly benefit the victims. In Cambodia, the UN’s monitor intervened to obtain better treatment and ultimately freedom for a journalist accused of defamation. In Afghanistan, the UN expert persuaded authorities to release hundreds of illegally detained prisoners. In Georgia, Indonesia, Spain and Colombia, U.N. experts uncovered unacceptable conditions for the displaced, abused women, prisoners and innocent civilians and influenced governments to take action.
We also found that too many governments ignore or deny the experts’ allegations or block efforts to gain access to the country or to victims. State cooperation was particularly bad when it came to responding to an expert’s written allegations of violations, with more than 50 percent of communications receiving no reply versus 18 percent that generated some positive movement toward a remedy. Yet even when they are denied country visits, like in the case of North Korea or Burma, these UN experts help amplify the voices of a beleaguered community of human rights defenders, mobilize advocacy and publicize first-hand testimony of victims.
The lack of state cooperation, however, is not the only challenge the independent experts face. A serious lack of resources, inadequate professional staff, insufficient training in the political and diplomatic skills needed to prompt officials to take action, and the absence of any systematic process for following up their recommendations stands out as the main weaknesses. With additional resources and political will, these are solvable problems. Fortunately, the five-year review of the Council, which just got underway at the end of October in Geneva, offers a good opportunity to address them.
In the meantime, given the generally positive track record of the UN’s independent experts, the United States should continue to lead efforts to create and fund new mandates. Later this fall, the UN will take up resolutions on Iran and Burma, opening the door for appointing independent experts and commissions of inquiry to deal with the longstanding and deteriorating human rights situations in these countries. For the sake of victims there and around the world, the international community should send in the experts.