UN Special Procedures - Reflections on the Office of UN Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia

Article excerpt

This feature describes the experiences of the writer when serving (1993-96) as Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations for Human Rights in Cambodia. It responds to a public lecture by Professor Hilary Charlesworth critical of the special procedures of the UN. It describes the establishment of the UN office and Junctions in Cambodia following UN Transitional Authority for Cambodia. It recounts the five office holders who have led the UN human rights involvement in Cambodia and acknowledges the limitations and difficulties faced by those office holders. However, it concludes that, on the whole, the creation of external international guardians of human rights can he useful, in practice, in achieving the objectives stated in the UN human rights treaty law. It concludes with several suggestions for the improvement of the special procedures, including in the mode of appointment, training, media involvement, report writing and responsiveness of such office holders and the auditing of their effectiveness. Whilst geopolitical limitations affect the achievements that are possible, the author concludes that the system is not so flawed that it would he better if it were abolished lest it raise false expectations.


  I Objects and Approach
 II Background to the Office of Special Representative
III The Five Cambodian Special Representatives
 IV Justification of Special Procedures
  V Improvement of Special Procedures
 VI Steps on Humanity's Path


My purpose is to reflect upon the 'special procedures' of the United Nations Organisation, created to promote and protect human rights in the world. Between 1993 and 1996, I served as Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations for Human Rights in Cambodia ('SR'). That office is one of several special rapporteurs, special representatives and other institutions of the United Nations dedicated to particular aspects of human rights and reporting to the chief United Nations human rights organ, formerly the Commission on Human Rights ('CHR'), and since 2006, the Human Rights Council ('the Council').

After participating in seven missions to Cambodia, (1) engaging with the then King of Cambodia (King Norodom Sihanouk), with the government and with a multitude of civil society organisations ('CSOs') and ordinary citizens, the Cambodian experience is deeply etched in my memory. It is natural that such an experience, and reflections upon it, will give rise to feelings of satisfaction with some of my endeavours and regrets at opportunities missed and achievements that fell short of what might have been desirable. The interval of fourteen years that has elapsed since holding office in Cambodia has afforded me a distance from the busy commitments that it entailed. It affords me a perspective and a measure of objectivity that would have been difficult, or impossible, in 1996.

In a lecture at the Australian National University, Professor Hilary Charlesworth (2) reviewed some aspects of my work in Cambodia. She did so as an introduction to a reflection on the special procedures of the United Nations and their effectiveness in securing improvements in the human rights of those whom the procedures seek to support. Her lecture concluded that the special procedures, including the Office of SR, represented flawed institutions that were virtually bound to fail the vulnerable people whom they were created to protect and defend. Professor Charlesworth identified what she saw as an understandable tendency on the part of nations and individuals, sympathetic to human rights, to accept inadequate institutional arrangements and insufficient national and international responses to proposals and criticism. She warned against an over-willingness on the part of the international community, and UN agencies and officials in particular, to accept the well-meaning work of those engaged in special procedures when the reality was often that human rights abusers ignored criticism and recommendations directed to their conduct and neglect. …


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