Human Rights and the UN: Progress and Challenges

Enduring structural improvements in human rights are very difficult to achieve. Global indices suggest that the world is little different today from a decade ago. In 2002, Freedom House, a non-governmental organization in the United States, recorded that 85 states were "free", 59 were "partly free" and 48 were "not free". In 2011 only two additional countries were judged "free" and one fewer "not free". The Political Terror Scale, an annual report which focuses on integrity violations and which is compiled from reports of Amnesty International and the US State Department, tells a similar story. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the best and 5 the worst, the global average in 2001 was 2.58. Despite differences within data, the global average in 2010 remained at 2.58. This apparent in- tractability seems to confirm mounting evidence that foreign assistance for governance and human rights are unlikely to deliver sustainable national improvements without genuine local political leadership. These figures might also tell us that in the face of strong countervailing forces, the United Nations has to run just to stand still.

Bearing this in mind, there is much that has gone well during Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's first term. Despite the enduring challenges, on average fewer people are arbitrarily killed and tortured by their own Government, armed conflicts are less likely to reignite, and when violence against civilians does erupt, these episodes tend to be shorter and less bloody. There has also been institutional progress. Most notably, the Secretary-General's commitment to advancing the responsibility to protect (R2P) has delivered real progress. The new Joint Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and on the Responsibility to Protect, approved by the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly in late 2010, has already made a positive contribution by providing early warning and by urging Governments to uphold their responsibilities. The Joint Office has also begun to assist in the strengthening of regional and national capacities to detect and mitigate risks associated with genocide and mass atrocities. The UN Secretariat has strengthened the place of human rights protection more broadly in its work, including mandating the protection of civilians in peace operations, the growing use of political offices to support the promotion of human rights in- country, and desk-to-desk links between the Secretariat and regional arrangements.

Under the able stewardship of Navanethem Pillay, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been strengthened. Not only has the High Commissioner herself played a key role in alerting the world to imminent dangers and reminding individual Member States -- including Libya, Syria and my native Australia -- of their legal responsibilities, the Office has also extended its human rights reporting operations and produced significant reportage, including the mapping exercise on atrocities and other human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The work of the Office to support and encourage national human rights institutions has contributed to the steady proliferation of these bodies.

The Human Rights Council has shown signs of shedding some of the problems that plagued its predecessor. Over the past five years, the Council has proven itself prepared to eject members who abuse the rights of their citizens, and the Universal Periodic Review process has become a core part of the Council's business, building shared expectations among states. This work has also helped disseminate human rights norms across the world. The establishment of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights provides an indication of this.

The creating of the entity UN Women in 2010 marked a potentially significant step forward for the promotion and protection of women's human rights. Their programmes, which are dedicated to the elimination of violence against women and focus on the protection of women during armed conflict, are especially relevant in this regard. The Secretary-General's appointment of Margot Wallström as Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict has also strengthened the Organization's capacity to protect women, notwithstanding criticism of her response to cases of mass rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2010.

Criticism of the Secretary-General's own performance in relation to human rights tended to focus on his perceived failure to denounce violations, especially in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and China. Such criticism runs counter to recent academic research which has shown that isolating states is a relatively ineffective way of responding to chronic human rights problems. And, for the record, the Secretary-General has repeatedly voiced concern about human rights in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. The dispute, though, is more about tactics than substance. Each individual case is different, and what might work in one place might not in another. Sometimes the Secretary-General has taken considerable political risks to protect human rights, most notably in the case of Côte d'Ivoire, in early 2011. Such tactics are not likely to work often.

Nonetheless, significant problems and challenges remain:

As recent experience with Syria shows, it continues to prove difficult in some cases to build consensus on specific issues relating to the protection of human rights.

The Human Rights Council remains prone to politicization, as evidenced by decisions that privilege political interests over human rights protection, as in its 2009 resolution commending Sri Lanka in advance of proper investigations.

The human rights of already marginalized groups have come under concerted attack from various quarters in recent years. Particularly notable are the violation of women's human rights, the proliferation of homophobic legislation and other violations against homosexuals, a trend towards the arbitrary detention of those that seek asylum, and abuses against itinerant peoples.

Problems of coherence remain. Some United Nations officials in the field remain uncertain about the place of human rights in their work and are unsure as to whether they are expected to raise protection issues with host Governments. Ostensibly, the protection of human rights is central to the work of many missions and agencies, but some officials continue to exhibit reticence about pursuing these mandates, fearing a political backlash.

Parts of the world have effectively become "human rights free zones", where core rights are abused with impunity. Somalia stands out as a country characterized by human rights abuses so massive and generalized, as to make the language of human rights sound ironic or irrelevant.

In his 2011 Cyril Foster lecture, the Secretary-General outlined an ambitious agenda for human protection. This was a call for the internalization of human rights throughout the United Nations system. It is, of course, notoriously difficult to think strategically about how best to use the limited resources of the United Nations to promote and protect human rights in the face of strong countervailing forces and so many competing priorities. In terms of the system's institutional architecture, the strengthening of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the establishment of the Joint Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and on the Responsibility to Protect, the creation of UN Women, and the incorporation of protection principles into the peacekeeping and humanitarian work of the Organization have laid the foundations during Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon's first term. The challenge now is to make these institutions work.

This means ensuring that the practices of the United Nations contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights everywhere. Progress has already been made, but more could be achieved by bringing the ethos of "delivering as one" into the human rights field, so that the United Nations system speaks as one and brings all of its resources to bear in the service of human rights. For example, to prevent the grave crimes associated with R2P and ensure that no part of the world becomes a de facto "human rights free zone", the United Nations system could mainstream an "atrocity prevention lens" to guide policymaking and programming. To address problems of coherence, the Secretary-General could issue guidelines about how human rights promotion and protection should be exercised in the field. To ensure that these issues are not sidelined by fears of political backlashes, he could provide clear high-level support to United Nations field officers charged with raising human rights issues, perhaps in the form of a letter directed to Heads of State or Government at the outset of a mission. To ensure that the human rights of women are placed in the foreground, UN Women and the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict could work together more closely and establish a presence right across the United Nations system, ensuring that no opportunity to promote and protect the rights of women is lost.

Within this scheme there are more modest steps that could be taken. The provision of timely and accurate information is an important way of reducing politicization and building consensus. Information about the abuse of human rights focuses attention, provides an empirical basis for tailored policy development, and exercises an albeit limited moderating effect on perpetrators. Additional resources for human rights reporting and strengthened cooperation between mandate holders would be an effective and relatively modest way of addressing some of the challenges. Further strengthening of the relation- ship between United Nations Headquarters and the regions would also help. Offices such as the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific and the United Nations Office for West Africa provide useful vehicles for officials-level dialogue, training, and cooperation on human rights promotion and protection in keeping with the "delivering as one" ethos. They also provide an opportunity to establish anticipatory relationships that would help improve responses to human rights crises.

Ultimately, though, much rests on the Member States and the strength of their commitment to human rights. The capacity of the United Nations to promote and protect human rights is influenced by the resources available to it, and the tools it is permitted to use. For example, as the Universal Periodic Review process becomes habitual, it could be strengthened to impose a more rigorous test, be made a part of the selection process for election to bodies such as the Human Rights Council or Security Council, and be connected to other parts of the system responsible for the provision of material and technical assistance to states. The Office of the High Commissioner can support such endeavours, but they are ultimately a matter for Member States. The same is true of the search for consensus in the face of human rights crises. Member States recognize that the United Nations is most effective when its decision-making bodies are united, but they bear the primary responsibility for reaching a consensus.

During his Cyril Foster Lecture, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded us that: "The United Nations was created to be an agent of change, not just an object of change. It has made history, even as it evolved with it. From its inception, the UN has been an incubator of ideas, a builder of norms, and an arbiter of standards. It remains so today. Through its actions, as well as its words, the world body has helped trans- form the global agenda by embracing human protection as an essential component". Progress was made in his first term, but further work is needed to challenge the structural impediments to sustainable change. With the institutional architecture now in place, moving in concrete ways toward "delivering as one" provides one avenue by which the United Nations might strengthen its role as an agent of positive change in human rights.