A Behind-the-Scenes Struggle for Human Rights

Article excerpt

MANY people know that Unesco's action in favour of human rights serves the fundamental purpose, set forth in its Constitution, of furthering "universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion, by the Charter of the United Nations".

It is also widely known that since its foundation Unesco has been concerned with the teaching of human rights. Through numerous publications and in consultation with many specialists, it has done much valuable work in this field over the years.

Equally well-known is Unesco's standard-setting action relating to human rights, enshrined in nine conventions, twenty-one recommendations and two declarations concerning rights to education, culture and information.

However, few people know that Unesco takes action on specific human rights problems through an organ of its Executive Board, the Committee on Conventions and Recommendations. If the existence of the Committee is virtually unknown to the general public, this is perhaps because much of its work is done in private session.

The Committee was originally set up to examine communications from individuals or associations invoking the violation of certain human rights, particularly educational and cultural rights, by states which are or are not members of Unesco".

In its early years, from 1965 to 1977, the Committee dealt only with questions relating to discrimination in education, but in 1978 its responsibilities were broadened, along with those of Unesco's Executive Board. Since then, all Unesco's fields of competence have been covered by the Committee, and general questions relating to human rights violations have been examined as well as individual cases.

The Committee had to find a way of reconciling two contradictory demands-how to operate with maximum effectiveness while at the same time Unesco is prohibited as an institution from intervening in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of its member states.

How the Committee works

The Committee on Conventions and Recommendations meets in private session twice a year. One disadvantage of working in this way is that the Committee's decisions may be deprived of support they might otherwise receive from public opinion. Another is that the public may get the impression that Unesco simply makes solemn and noble declarations whereas in reality it is engaged in practical, continuous and effective action.

Yet some of the benefits of working in private session outweigh the disadvantages. Discussion focuses on the humanitarian rather than the political aspects of the problem. Since governments are not publicly accused, they do not feel that they are losing face when they yield to a decision by the Committee.

To understand how the Committee works, let us take the example of a person-perhaps a writer, a teacher, an artist or a journalist-who is in prison. A dossier compiled by Unesco's Office of International Standards and Legal Affairs is given to each member of the Committee. It contains information on behalf of the alleged victim and, if possible, the initial reactions of the government concerned, together with a summary provided by the representative of the Director-General of Unesco. …