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11 December 2018
OLLI December 10 2018 Human Rights Conference

Presentation By: Ed Elmendorf, Past UNA-NCA President

A personal note: in the 1960s I had the privilege to work, as a very junior foreign service officer, at the US Mission to the UN in NYC.  Like Eleanor Roosevelt 15 years earlier, I was assigned to a UN body then considered unimportant, the UNGA Third Committee, responsible for HR. I worked then also with John Humphrey, Director of the UN Secretariat HR Division, and represented the USG in the UN Committee on Periodic Reports on HR – the primitive and unsophisticated predecessor of the present Universal Periodic Review.

International institutions, especially the UN, have been central to articulation of HR norms ever since WWII. UDHR 1948 and Human Rights Covenants 1966 were 2 of 3 tiers of International Bill of HR. The first and second tiers were declarations of principle and their presentation in legal form. Third tier – ‘measures of implementation’ – has proved much more difficult.  This is hardly surprising, given our own experience in the United States. It is the focus of my presentation today.  ‘Measures of implementation’ include not only formal legal enforcement actions, but also public and private dialogue and TA.

International measures of implementation for HR force us to face the central tension in the UN Charter, between the Charter mandate for the UN to promote HR and the Charter requirement not to intervene in any matter ‘essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of member States.’  In practice, the threshold separating domestic jurisdiction from international concerns has shifted substantially since the UN’s early years away from full autonomy for state action. This is the first of two remarkable changes in international relations over the past 70 years. The second is the enormous growth in the importance of non-state actors on the international stage, from the business community, NGOs, terrorists, and individuals.  Both of these changes open up space for HR action.

While the UN is not and cannot be engaged in enforcement of HR, outside the framework of SC action under UN Charter Chapter VII on threats to peace, the UN now engages with the HR performance of its member States, in quite specific ways. To do this it has equipped itself with institutions, procedures and practices which bring successes and failures in individual countries to light and strengthen domestic action for HR respect. The range is notable, and goes well beyond the standard treaty bodies established under international conventions to review reports by states on their respect for rights established under individual treaties.  Institutions include the UN High Commissioner for HR, the UN Human Rights Council of 47 states and its so-called ‘special procedures’ of independent experts, the Council’s Universal Periodic Review of country HR performance based on the UDHR standards, and special  commissions of inquiry, as on Syria and North Korea. This is not just a matter of dramatic public confrontations but more importantly of continuing contact and pressure, including through human rights officers in UN local resident coordinators’ offices and advisers in 27 countries, and on peacekeeping missions, as well as technical assistance and individual thematic and country-specific expert mandates at the country level. 

None of these institutions is perfect; indeed, many, such as the Human Rights Council, are deeply flawed – reflecting the messy world in which we live. The apex of measures of implementation is the International Criminal Court – not formally a UN body but certainly part of the global structure of institutions and procedures falling under the term of ‘measures of implementation.’  Beyond states, civil society plays a key role, in Geneva and beyond.

My focus here is on civil and political rights, in a more or less traditional sense.  But, we cannot forget the wide range of UN action on women’s rights and gender issues.  A few years ago, the UN merged several smaller entities into what amounts to a large and increasingly consequential UN agency, called UN Women.  There is also a major intergovernmental body, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).  The CSW has a long and distinguished history, and now has an annual meeting at the UN bringing together thousands of people.

The media make the failures of the international community successfully to address dramatic HR violations apparent. International accountability for HR violations remains rare today. Full international accountability cannot be expected for the foreseeable future, and would probably require some type of world-wide federated state – something not acceptable today, or tomorrow. The international HR system remains an expression of the world as it is, and only actions by states can change that. Remember that, for many, the UN Secretary-general is, and should remain, more ‘secretary’ than ‘general.’

UN HR successes are less widely known than failures, but they cannot be ignored even if poorly documented, in Sri Lanka and other countries.  One concrete example: A 3-person UN Mission on HR in South Sudan visited that country and investigated the horrendous HR conditions prevailing there in conditions of civil war, including violations by local armed forces. Drawing attention to widespread lack of accountability, the Commission showed that the local government can be held accountable, when a Military Tribunal imposed jail sentences on ten soldiers.  Victims requested the UN Commission to assist in assuring that those who commit crimes are identified and prosecuted. Such assistance goes well beyond any traditional notions of domestic jurisdiction.  It would be difficult to contemplate such action by UN experts in this country, for example in the current conditions along the US border with Mexico! 

The present challenges to the web of procedures and institutions stimulating improved HR performance at and by the UN are many: To mention but a few: decreasing space for civil society action in many countries, the disdain for human rights of the Trump Administration AND those other governments which emulate its positions around the world, and the actions of so-called spoiler states at the UN which may have more or less satisfactory HR positions at home but align themselves in the UN with China, Russia and others who hide behind the argument of sovereignty to limit UN HR actions.   

What can we as citizens do by ourselves and through our communities NOW to help overcome the weaknesses of measures of implementation? Three things:

One: Push the USG and the UN to establish an independent investigation of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Independent UN HR experts have already publicly called for an international investigation. I believe the US has an interest in a UN inquiry because that would take the issue out of US-Saudi bilateral relations.

Two: Show that UN HR actions are consistent with American values and Congressional policies.  Write and speak publicly!

Three: Advocate with our local and national political leaders for US support for UN HR activities, including re-engagement with the UN Human Rights Council and UN HR system. Join the UN Association and participate in its advocacy and human rights activities. Bring your local faith groups together to act on the UN and HR.