Torture, the sale of children, arbitrary detention, unlawful killings, extreme poverty and attacks against human rights defenders are all abuses that are investigated and often prevented by independent United Nations human rights experts. However, the UN Human Rights Council (‘Council’) is considering measures to eliminate or weaken the role of these effective human rights champions. More than 12,000 individuals from 147 countries signed a petition that was delivered on 9 May to the Council. The petition calls on the Council to retain a strong independent system of human rights experts. It is sponsored by 17 international and regional human rights organisations.
A year ago, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticised the UN’s main human rights body in stark terms, stating that its ‘declining credibility has cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system.’ A much-needed reform process is still underway. But whatever the outcome of the reform process, one thing is clear to those who support a positive role for the UN in the promotion and protection of human rights: it would be a grave mistake to weaken the system of the UN human rights experts (collectively referred to as ‘Special Procedures’). While much else in the system has been criticised, they have been described as the ‘crown jewels’ of the UN human rights system and as giving ‘a voice to the voiceless victims of abuses.’
It is the success of the UN human rights experts that makes them a target for the repressive governments that are now seeking to undermine them. Turning the reform process on its head, these governments want to strip the human rights experts of their independence and powers in a bid to prevent scrutiny of their own human rights violations. Without effective UN human rights experts it will be easier for governments to continue committing all manner of human rights crimes, including mass murder.
As part of the reform process, the Council is currently undertaking a formal review of the experts. It is considering imposing a euphemistically named ‘code of conduct’ on them, which could limit their independence, restrict their ability to use the media and limit their ability to criticise governments implicated in violations. The Council is also considering changing the way the investigators are selected, which would mean that objective experts are less likely to be chosen. Finally, some of the mandates, or subjects, covered by the experts could be abolished altogether. The review is due to be completed by 18 June 2007.
Instead of weakening a part of the UN human rights system that works, the Council should be looking at ways to strengthen it. The experts are important for at least six reasons. First, unlike many international mechanisms, they are flexible and able to respond to urgent situations rapidly. Second, they have a global reach and can respond to violations occurring anywhere in the world. Third, they are independent, objective and impartial. Fourth, as experts in their field, they can provide practical advice to governments and can contribute to the development of human rights law. Fifth, they bring human rights violations, including emerging crises, to the attention of the international community thereby helping to prevent even more severe human rights crises. Sixth, they provide support and protection for local human rights defenders who often work at considerable risk.
Human Rights First is co-sponsoring the petition and works closely with threatened human rights activists around the world. They tell us that the experts are essential to their work. Usman Hamid, an Indonesian human rights activist seeking justice for the 2004 poisoning of renowned Indonesian human rights defender Munir explains that, ‘Special Procedures are the most responsive and flexible channel for victims’ appeals.’
Ruth del Valle, a prominent Guatemalan activist, whose office was recently ransacked, told us that one such expert, the Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders, ‘is a vital mechanism to support our work and protect our lives. It not only provides us with solidarity and protection but also elicits action from our government that we could not obtain alone’.
Such testimonies should be a reminder to governments that the negotiations taking place in Geneva will have a very direct bearing on the enjoyment of human rights by large numbers of people across the world. Governments must make sure that the review maintains the integrity of these vital mechanisms. Citizens around the world have until 18 June to make their voices heard on this topic by signing the petition at http://www.actforspecialprocedures.org.
Andrew Hudson is Arthur Helton Fellow in the Human Rights Defenders Program at Human Rights First