Academic journal article Global Governance

Welcoming a New International Human Rights Actor? the Participation of Subnational Human Rights Institutions at the UN

Academic journal article Global Governance

Welcoming a New International Human Rights Actor? the Participation of Subnational Human Rights Institutions at the UN

Article excerpt

Subnational human rights institutions are often thought of as distinctly local bodies, addressing human rights concerns within their jurisdictions with little attention to the processes and mechanisms of the wider international human rights regime. This article shows that this description is no longer necessarily accurate. Rather, subnational human rights institutions can and do participate in the UN human rights regime in a number of important ways. Such participation is potentially beneficial to the UN human rights processes, and subnational human rights institutions have in fact been welcomed by institutional actors at the UN. Nevertheless, the UN, national human rights institutions, and subnational human rights institutions themselves can all do more to ensure that subnational human rights institutions are able to participate fully in the UN human rights system. Keywords: subnational human rights institutions, United Nations, Human Rights Council, Universal Periodic Review, national human rights institutions.

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WHILE NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS INSTITUTIONS (NHRIS) ARE NOW WIDELY recognized as playing an accepted and prominent role in the UN human rights system, less attention has been paid to the international engagement of their subnational counterparts: those state, provincial, and regional human rights commissions and ombudsman institutions known broadly as subnational human rights institution (SNHRIs). On the contrary, SNHRIs are often thought of as distinctly local bodies that address human rights concerns within their jurisdictions with little attention to the processes and mechanisms of the wider international human rights regime. This perception is no longer entirely accurate. As I show in this article, SNHRIs are becoming increasingly active participants in the UN human rights system where they are introducing their distinct viewpoints to a landscape previously dominated by national-level actors.

It should be noted that, when compared with NHRI participation, SNHRI engagement with the UN remains at a relatively low level. However, the potential significance of this new actor at the international stage is greater than the current rate of engagement might indicate. NHRI engagement at the UN also started out at low levels, and it is only in the past few years that NHRI participation has become more common and has spread beyond the main human rights mechanisms to other UN bodies such as the Commission on the Status of Women and the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. A similar trend is certainly possible with SNHRIs, especially given that the Secretary-General is now strongly encouraging further SNHRI participation. (1)

More importantly, SNHRI participation in a UN system that until recently was considered a bastion of the nation-state represents a significant innovation in human rights governance that so far has gone largely unremarked by scholars. (2) Global governance research has exhaustively addressed the process of international human rights norm transmission to the local level, employing concepts such as norm diffusion and internalization, (3) localization, (4) and vernacularization. (5) However, these theoretical approaches have had little to say about the implications of the active participation of subnational state entities in international mechanisms, tending instead to see them more as passive receptors of global norms, which they then transmit (or "translate" in Sally Merry's terminology) (6) to their communities. The innovation of active and multifaceted SNHRI participation at the UN shows that a greater give and take is possible between the local and the global (to use the common, but heavily criticized terms), with results that warrant further empirical and theoretical study.

In this article, I thus take a first step toward addressing the issue by examining the principal ways in which SNHRIs are participating at the UN: through filing or contributing to reports to treaty bodies and at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR); acting as or engaging with independent national mechanisms pursuant to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPD) and the Optional Protocol of the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT); and engaging with the special procedures. …

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