The UN and accountable implementation of human rights

Published : 20 Jun 2023 09:21 PM

Human rights have gradually evolved over the years and are based on mankind’s increasing demand for a life in which the inherent dignity and worth of each human being will receive respect and protection.

One can state in this context that the denial of human rights and fundamental freedoms not only construe an individual and personal tragedy, but also create conditions of social and political unrest , sowing the seeds  of violence and conflict within and between societies and nations. The Charter of the United Nations framed at the San Francisco conference in 1945 contained Articles 1, 13, 55, 56, 62, 68 and 76 which not only reaffirmed the faith in the new organization- the United Nations but also in fundamental human rights.

Subsequently, the onset of the Cold War brought to the fore divisions over the inclusion of both economic and social rights and civil and political rights. Capitalist states tended to place strong emphasis on civil and political rights (such as freedom of association and expression), and were reluctant to include economic and social rights (such as the right to work and the right to join a union). Socialist states placed much greater importance on economic and social rights and argued strongly for their inclusion.

Because of the divisions over which rights to include some states declined to ratify any treaties pertaining to certain specific interpretations of human rights. The Soviet bloc and a number of developing countries argued strongly for the inclusion of all rights in a so-called Unity Resolution. However, the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) were split into two separate covenants, allowing states to adopt some rights and derogate others. Although the UDHR was a non-binding resolution, it is now considered to be a central component of international customary law which may be invoked under appropriate circumstances by state judiciaries and other judiciaries.

In 1966, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) were adopted by the United Nations and it was reiterated that between them, the rights contained in the UDHR were binding on all states. However, they came into force only in 1976, when they were ratified by a sufficient number of countries. The US only ratified the ICCPR in 1992. The ICESCR commits state parties to work toward the granting of economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR) to individuals.

To this evolving scenario one also needs to add that the evolving scenario needs to recall the parameter of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action which was adopted 30 years ago at the UN Human Rights Conference in the Austrian capital in June 1993. The Declaration was a strong and clear endorsement -- by consensus of all UN Member States -– of the rights contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

However since then it has not been a bed of roses as has been outlined recently by Volker Turk, an Austrian lawyer, currently UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. It has been pointed out that both under-funding and under resourcing is taking the wind out of the UNHRC sail.

Speaking out recently in the second half of May this year, he recalled the current scenario as his institution has continued to pursue since December last year, their year-long commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was apparently undertaken to celebrate 30 years since the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna created the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. That was seen as an important milestone.

This effort has apparently been undertaken through separate initiatives calling on States and all others to make pledges, and to take clear steps to fulfil the promises of the Universal Declaration. This year-long effort is expected to culminate through a high-level event on 11 and 12 December – convened by his Office here in Geneva, linked up with Bangkok, Nairobi and Panama City.

Over the past 30 years, the work of this Office has contributed to greater recognition of the centrality of human rights in making and sustaining peace, in preventing and halting violations, in fostering accountability, in sustainable development, in humanitarian response and, of late, in economic policy and the work of international financial institutions.

Volker Turk has pointed out that his Office has been at the forefront of addressing issues of global importance as they emerged- including the human rights impacts of climate change, artificial intelligence, and digital technology. They now have gone from just two field presences when they started to 94 presences around the world today. Very correctly, he would like to see this expanded further whereby there will be a UN Human Rights Office everywhere in all Member States of the United Nations.

Such an effort is however facing difficulties because of underfunding. Consequently he is mow underlining the need for donors – State, corporate and private – to help this to happen. It has been underlined that a strong UN Human Rights Office and a healthy, well-resourced human rights ecosystem both deserve global interest. This is so because their work and the human rights mechanisms that they have supported have helped –“advance the human rights cause, identify drivers of conflict and crisis and barriers to development, and offer solutions as well as pathways to remedy and accountability”.

It is also being outlined that this process has borne success because this UN institution has been working not only with State institutions and national human rights bodies but also with civil society on the ground. This joint initiative has helped to reform laws and to train officials. 

In addition, according to Turk, this approach has also assisted in helping to open the space for civil society organisations and journalists to do their work. In this context it has been underlined that the UNHRC is often serving as a bridge between civil society and institutions of the State.

It needs to be accepted in this context that the UNHRC in recent times has been setting off alarm bells when attacks on, neglect of, or disdain for human rights set off crises. Such a course of action has played a good role in ensuring accountability and transitional justice for those who perpetrate serious human rights violations. It has also been claimed that they provide a reality check, help set the facts straight against the background of human rights laws and standards.

Within this background Turk has justifiable been critical of Myanmar and what is taking place there in terms of human rights violations. He has pointed out that for decades; the authorities in Myanmar have deprived the Rohingya of their rights and freedoms and relentlessly attacked other ethnic groups, eroding their capacity to survive. He has also drawn attention to the fact that nowhere was the devastating impact of human rights violations more starkly than in the aftermath of natural disaster-“Cyclone Mocha, which cut a swath of destruction through Rakhine, Chin and Kachin States, as well as Sagaing and Magway, in Myanmar on 14 May. This was the latest, deeply painful manifestation of a man-made disaster resulting from a climate event” and also an example of human rights violation.

After this Turk has referred to what has been happening in Sudan and how the desperate situation is affecting the people of Sudan – where in spite of successive ceasefires, civilians continue to be exposed to serious risk of death and injury. He has also reiterated that in this near-total impunity for gross violations that is at the root of this new, brazen grab for power in Sudan, efforts should be undertaken to bring this conflict to an end for the sake of human rights, accountability and also for any peace to be sustained.

Turk, in the spirit of human rights, has also urged the concerned authorities in different countries to refrain from hate speech and harmful narratives against migrants and refugees as such measures risk undermining the basic foundations of international human rights law and refugee law. In this regard reference has also been made to developments in some countries, including the UK, the US, Italy and Greece- where those seeking asylum are being arranged to return to their countries of origin “in unlawful, undignified, unsustainable ways”.

He has also referred to Article 14 of the Universal Declaration which asserts everyone’s right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. He has then stressed on “we need solidarity – to ensure that all people in vulnerable situations are treated with humanity and respect for their rights”. In addition it has been observed that “much more needs to be done to eradicate racial discrimination – and it needs to start with listening to people of African descent, meaningfully involving them and taking genuine steps to act upon their concerns”. He has also expressed concern about the shrinking of civic space in some countries including China, the crackdowns on women’s rights through gender apartheid and other repressive policies in some other countries like Afghanistan.

He ended his remarks on May 24 by pointing out that human rights are universal. Consequently, the “dignity and worth of every human being should not be – cannot be – a questionable, sensitive concept”. He has also underlined that one can also hope that we will be able to find the roots of human rights values in each of our cultures, histories, and faiths. That should help us to unite and push back against the politicization of human rights within and between countries.

One can only conclude by referring to the effort by this UN institution to find greater support financially and hope that all developed countries and international financial institutions- both public as well as private- will come forward and financially support UNHRC in their quest to uphold 

human rights.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance