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Ways to improve UN Special Procedures on Human Rights

Human  Rights have more relevance to individuals than people realise but countries – including Ireland – must be held to account in complying with their Human  Rights obligations. A key tool for addressing this compliance is the UN Special Procedures system, but it has weaknesses – mainly around sanctions, resources and awareness – which must be tackled.

How do the UN Special Procedures on Human Rights work?

Under the Special Procedures mechanism of the United Nations, individual experts or working groups are tasked with monitoring and reporting on human rights conditions, either on a geographical basis (country mandates), or focussed internationally upon general themed human rights issues (thematic mandates).

These “mandate holders” are empowered to investigate human rights abuse, and State compliance with human rights standards, in two key ways: as a result of a specific individual complaint of violation received (letter of allegation/communication); or of the mandate holders own accord in conducting an on-site country visit.

Special Procedures have evolved from the establishment of the first such single mandate in 1967 in response to South African apartheid, to the existence at 30 September 2016 of 14 country mandates encompassing almost the entire globe, and 43 thematic mandates. All span the entire range of human rights(read more here), including civil and political, social and economic, and cultural rights.

Of all the mechanisms established by the UN to oversee and support the vindication of Human Rights internationally, the Special Procedures mechanism is regarded by NGO’s and partners on the ground “on balance to be one of the most nimble, responsive, and accessible of the UN human rights mechanisms”.  The collective Special Rapporteurs, Individual Experts, Special Representatives and Working Groups have been described as serving “as the UN’s eyes and ears on the human rights problems around the world”; n and have in my view contributed to an improved and enhanced dialogue between the State and its citizens in matters affecting the citizen. Special Procedures carry numerous advantages over other human rights monitoring mechanisms, not least of which is the independence and expertise which the individual mandate holder brings. This individuality, coupled with (assumed) political independence, facilitates a more dynamic interpretation of the particular mandate held, which has the potential of achieving more creative and beneficial outcomes.

However lauded it is, the Special Procedures mechanism is imperfect/ It requires nurturing, additional support, and ultimately a defined and targeted strategy, if it is to remain an effective implement in the UN’s human rights toolbox. I have in this piece, summarised 5 essential steps which I believe are necessary to strengthen, and advance, the system:

1. Secure Resources for Human  Rights

With the ever-increasing growth of mandates, the demand placed upon the mechanism has reached critical overload, however resource allocation, financial and staffing, has not kept pace, if indeed it ever did.  It has been suggested that the system is “hobbled” from within, as Human Rights receives only 3% of the regular UN budget,  of which Special Procedures receive only 12.8%. Under-resourcing has resulted in some mandate holders utilising universities, research institutes, and NGOs to effectively “sponsor” temporary staff. I believe it is possible that any detailed enquiry into the funding sources of such third-party sponsors, could legitimately call into question the independence of the mandate holder’s enquiry, when this very independence is one of the key advantages of the mechanism. Sufficient, secure and independent resourcing is therefore essential.

2. Incentivise Greater State Engagement on Human Rights

Human rights mechanisms are too greatly dependent upon State co-operation in their quest to support and enhance human rights. Mandate holders are reliant upon States responding to communications of alleged violations, and consenting to on-site country visits. There is little sanction available for non-cooperation, and this is an inherent weakness in a system which bent on the persuasion of compliance, rather than compulsion. A 42% response rate of States to communications in 2014/2015, conceals the shocking fact that one-third of states failing to respond were in fact Council Members. Greater engagement of States could be incentivised by requiring a stricter pledge of co-operation, and more vociferous public shaming of States which are repeat offenders.

3. Accurate Human Rights Data Collection

The true success of any system can only be tested when there are clearly defined and measurable outcomes, against which States may be held accountable. While the individual communication system is invaluable in making human rights accessible to the marginalised, fulsome and publicly available data regarding the origin of complaints, the demographic of complainants and the outcomes, is essential to enhance accountability. Further, as the letter of allegation method of complaint does not have specific admissibility requirements, data availability will render it more open to public examination and scrutiny, which will better ensure accurate verification of the validity of complaints. Mandate holders themselves have noted the failure to systemise (in “follow up”) as being their “weakest link”.

4. Greater Visibility on Human Rights

Unless you are a person who already works or studies in the area of human rights, who among the general public is, in fact, aware of Special Procedures? Whilst it is undoubted that country visits have the capacity to raise awareness of problematic issues within States, it is equally undoubted that poor visibility and low public profile is an obstacle to realising the full potential of the mechanism. Mandate holders should expand on their current use of press releases and international seminars (largely attended by professionals/academics) by means of a larger targeted Public Relations Strategy, highlighting the opportunities presented by the mechanism directly to the public. The production and release of one concise Annual Special Procedures World Report has also been suggested.

5. Strategic Planning

There is no doubt that Special Procedures have to date developed and expanded in an ad-hoc manner, resulting in a system which lacks coherence and which is at times incomprehensible. Many mandates overlap yet lack collaborative consultation. The language of the system is over legalistic for layman’s use, and can be confusing even for lawyers. As in the case of a large corporation which has (successfully) outgrown its boundaries, Special Procedures would now benefit from the creation of a purposive Strategic Plan and refined Mission Statement. Hoehne argues that such an overall strategy will allow for the growth and expansion of mandates, make the system less vulnerable to political influence and ultimately render it more secure and effective in the advancement of human rights.

If you have any enquiries about human rights issues, just phone us on 0404 67540 or email: info@dmburke.ie