Posts Tagged ‘Open global rights’

Human Rights in crisis? – here the last word (before the summer!)

August 1, 2018

This blog (among many other sources) has dedicated quite a few posts to the mood of crisis that has engulfed the human rights movement, especially at international level. The international human rights regime as we have known it for the last decades is indeed under pressure, from autocratic regimes, from populist leaders and – let us be honest – from quite a few ‘normal’ people. Below you find a small selection earlier blog posts on this theme of crisis. On  30 May 2018 the MEA organized in Geneva a public event “Human Rights in a Changing World”. At this 25th Anniversary event, the leaders of the 10 international NGOs on the MEA Jury and several laureates had wide ranging discussions both in private and in public. The MEA has now produced a summary for public consumption which I have published separately earlier this day [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/08/01/report-of-meas-25thanniversary-event-human-rights-in-a-changing-world-30-may-2018/ ]

July 31 July 2018, Kathryn Sikkink published an interesting piece that has some elements in common with findings of the MEA event referred to above. The title is: “Rethinking the notion of a human rights crisis”, with as summary that “The frame of constant crisis has negative implications for human rights, especially when questions of legitimacy arise. But hope—based on empirical evidence of human rights progress—should give advocates the motivation to keep working.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

There is an epidemic of pessimism surrounding human rights today. To name but a few examples, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has suggested that there has never been so much suffering since World War II, University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner has claimed that there have been no marked decreases in human rights violations in the same time period, and international relations scholar Stephen Hopgood has argued that we are witnessing the “end times of human rights.”

Such a pessimistic mindset is understandable because of the worrisome situations that human rights activists face every day. The idea of peril and crisis, however, points not only to the present moment but also implies some knowledge about trends and change over time; it suggests that human rights were not challenged before, and that the situation is now worse.

I recognize that many alarming human rights situations exist in the world today, and I am particularly worried about the current situation in the United States, but I am not persuaded that the state of human rights globally is now worse than it has been before. Instead, let us consider how the frame of constant crisis itself could have negative consequences for human rights.

My recent book, Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century, proposes that pessimistic claims need to be submitted to rigorous examination, both historical and statistical. This debate matters because of the inadvertent effects the frame of crisis and peril may have on perceptions about the effectiveness and legitimacy of human rights activism.

Historically, human rights progress has occurred as a result of struggle, and has often been spearheaded by oppressed groups. Where it has occurred, human rights progress has not been at all inevitable, but rather contingent on continued commitment and effort. Some activists and scholars fear that if they admit there has been progress, people will grow complacent and disengaged.

A recent survey of 346 individuals currently or previously working in the field of human rights found that this work is associated with elevated levels of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. One source of this appears to be negative self-appraisals about human rights work. These findings suggest that one of the most difficult parts of being a human rights activist is the doubt about whether you are contributing to positive change. A frame of excessive crisis thus may not only contribute to the impression that the human rights movement has historically been ineffective, but it could also diminish the motivation and well-being of activists.

By their very definition, human rights are needed when things are bad. I worked at a small human rights organization, the Washington Office for Latin America (WOLA) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time that is now seen by some as the golden age of human rights activism. Yet we never felt like human rights goals were easily within our reach. How could we, when the Argentine government was disappearing thousands of its citizens; the Salvador government, with the heavy support of the US government, was massacring people; and the world had ignored the recent genocide in Cambodia?

Some of the current pessimism also suggests that human rights activists were popular at some point in the past and are now denigrated. But human rights activists have never been popular in the countries where they work. Repressive governments have a long history of attacking and vilifying human rights groups, through smear campaigns and other repressive tactics. Human rights organizations often defend the rights of unpopular minorities such as political leftists in Latin America, the Roma in Europe, and transgender people in the US.

The fact that the fight for human rights has always faced significant opposition should not discourage us. The longer history of human rights offers a positive message that can help sustain us in the context of our current struggles. In Evidence for Hope, I explore what changes have taken place over time, using the best data I can find on what many of us would agree to be good measures of diverse human rights.

Looking at this data carefully, issue by issue, we see that some situations are worsening—such as the absolute number of refugees displaced by war or economic inequality within many countries. Nevertheless, there are many more positive trends, including a decline in genocide and politicide, a shrinking number of people killed in war, decreasing use of the death penalty, and improvements in poverty, infant mortality, and life expectancy, as well as advances in gender equality, the rights of sexual minorities, and the rights of people with disabilities.

So why is it that so many people believe human rights violations in the world are getting worse rather than better? The short answer is that we think the world is worse off because we care more and know more about human rights than ever before. The media and human rights organizations have drawn our attention to an increasingly wide range of rights violations around the world. Their success in doing so sometimes inadvertently causes people to think that no human rights progress is occurring. Discouraging results are also generated because we compare our current situation not to the past but to an imagined ideal world, and thus we always fall short.

My point here is not to suggest that the situation for human rights defenders is improving in the world. I mainly want to remind readers that human rights defenders have long been on the front line, and we should be cautious in suggesting that there was a better period for human rights in the second half of the twentieth century that has now been eroded in the twenty-first century. Some of the threats—particularly those involving invasive laws about registration and funding—are indeed new and threatening, while other challenges have been almost a constant for civil society human rights organizations over time.

Nothing about how new or old these challenges are or about any trends in fundamental human rights detracts from acknowledging the frightening challenges groups and individuals face, nor do they negate the urgent need to strategize about how to respond to these challenges. Yet, what I hope is that some information about historical trends, as well as a more focused look at data, may be useful as part of an action-oriented discussion of promising tactics and how to address these challenges.

The stakes in this human rights debate are high. Anger, hope, and the knowledge that you can make a difference in the world give people the energy to keep working. Knowing more specifically how human rights groups have made a difference can teach us more about effective strategies and tactics to use in the future.

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Another one bites the dust…the future of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

February 13, 2018

David Petrasek, Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, wrote on 8 February 2018 an interesting piece under the title: “Another one bites the dust—what future for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights?” (Openglobalrights.org) and wondered whether the early departure—yet again—of a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights doesn’t suggests it’s time to re-think the office’s priorities and strengthen its mandate (rather than more activism).

After the announcement in December 2017 by Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan that he would not seek a second term as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, I wrote that “while most high level United Nations officials serve as long as their mandate allows, no single Human Rights Commissioner has served a full four-year second term” [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/12/22/bound-to-happen-but-still-high-commissioner-zeid-announces-he-will-not-seek-second-term/].

The piece is worth reading and poses well the difficult dilemma:

Petrasek states: Zeid’s untimely departure therefore begs the question—is the job do-able? In fulfilling the mandate, must the UN’s top human rights official so annoy governments that they cut short her or his tenure? Is that a price worth paying? It would certainly strengthen the High Commissioner’s position if they were given a single six or seven-year term, getting out from under the Damoclean sword of renewal at four years.

Zeid has been a prominent and eloquent spokesperson in defense of human rights,..Clearly, this won him few friends among powerful countries, the US included. But it’s less clear that his outspokenness made much difference. It’s worth asking: should the High Commissioner prioritize speaking out even if the cost of doing so is to lose the political support necessary to fulfil her or his full mandate? The High Commissioner is not only the UN’s human rights conscience. She or he is also tasked with co-ordinating the UN’s myriad human rights activities, pursuing an active—and perhaps less public—human rights diplomacy, and leading efforts to reform often overlapping, outdated and cumbersome UN procedures.

The idea for a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was put forward by civil society in the lead up to the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993. Many functions were suggested for inclusion in the High Commissioner’s mandate, but the non-negotiable core demand was simple—the High Commissioner must have an overarching duty to promote and protect human rights anywhere.The High Commissioner was, therefore, a giant leap forward—personified in the post was the UN’s general human rights mandate, grounded in the UN Charter. She or he was now able to act whenever and wherever rights were at risk.

This general protection mandate has produced real results: High Commissioners have put neglected crises on the global agenda; there’s been a much-needed shift to the field of human rights staff, and the High Commissioner has amplified the voices of local human rights defenders.

Yet, today the High Commissioner’s voice is often only one amongst many. There are almost 60 independent human rights monitors (“Special Rapporteurs”) .. in 1993, there were barely a dozen. Similarly, today UN human rights inquiries are investigating crimes against humanity and war crimes in five countries, and eight investigations have concluded in the past decade. The Council regularly meets in emergency session, there is an International Criminal Court, and the UN Security Council often (if inconsistently) includes human rights concerns in its resolutions, a rare occurrence in 1993. The Security Council has also authorized the deployment of over 1,000 human rights staff to UN peacekeeping missions. They too issue reports and statements of concern, as increasingly does the UN Secretary-General.

In short, the gap identified in 1993 has narrowed considerably, at least as concerns the UN pointing a finger at human rights abusers.

But other gaps remain and widen. The growth in UN human rights mechanisms has not been accompanied by an obvious growth in their efficiency or effectiveness. Indeed, multiple and overlapping procedures are weighing down what should be a nimble and responsive system. Further, although at least since the late 1990s High Commissioners have prioritized putting staff in the field, more than half remain in Geneva and New York; in contrast, the UN Refugee Agency has 87% of its staff in the field. This imbalance seriously undermines the Office’s ability to pursue an effective human rights diplomacy. And the relative weakness and underfunding of the High Commissioner’s Office means it is hard-pressed to co-ordinate UN system-wide approaches. It has been over a decade since it has proposed any significant reforms.

The conclusion might seem obvious—the High Commissioner should spend less time speaking out and more time strengthening and reforming both his Office and the UN human rights system. A less public profile, in this view, might produce less resistance to much-needed reform—diplomacy succeeding where activism fails.

Flickr/UN Geneva (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0-Some Rights Reserved)


Of course, it’s not that simple. Many states are reluctant to see the UN’s human rights efforts strengthened, regardless of what the High Commissioner is saying or not. And though a more ‘diplomatic’ approach might suit some states, it will at the same time alarm civil society and activists who look to the High Commissioner for leadership. Even if states might ignore denunciations from Geneva or New York, an activist High Commissioner undoubtedly gives comfort and support to beleaguered human rights defenders.

There are no easy answers to the question posed. Perhaps it’s simply unfortunate but necessary that the High Commissioner’s mandate is a poisoned chalice—do the job well, and you’re unlikely to be re-appointed. However, given the many changes since 1993, it is worth reflecting more deeply on how this mandate might be credibly pursued so that High Commissioners depart when the job is done, not when states determine their time is up.

A single, lengthier term is one proposal, but others might be considered, including better co-ordination between the High Commissioner and the Council’s independent experts to leverage more diplomatic space. The current High Commissioner will depart in August and the key players are already politicking to appoint a successor. If she or he is not to meet a familiar fate, then now is the time to re-think priorities and strengthen the mandate.

 

(David Petrasek was formerly Senior Policy Director and Special Adviser to the Secretary-General of Amnesty International. David has worked on human rights and conflict resolution issues with the UN, foundations and NGOs for over 25 years.)

https://www.openglobalrights.org/another-one-bites-the-dust-what-future-for-the-un-high-commissioner-for-human-rights/?lang=English