Academic journal article Global Governance

Musings of a UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights. (Global Insights)

Academic journal article Global Governance

Musings of a UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights. (Global Insights)

Article excerpt

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (CHR) appointed its first special rapporteur in 1979 to report on abuses in Chile under the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. This initiative established an important precedent for the institution of special procedures to examine serious human rights violations in any country. In 1982, for the first time, a thematic rapporteurship was set up to examine summary and arbitrary executions. Consequently, the fifty-three member states of the CHR have taken steps toward a worldwide system for monitoring human rights. In mid-2002, there were forty-one special rapporteurs: thirty on thematic issues, eleven working in specific countries. (1) My first appointment as special rapporteur for Burundi lasted from 1995 to 1999. In December 2000, I began a second mandate for Myanmar, a position I continue to hold. (2)

The selection process for special rapporteurs is somewhat inscrutable, perhaps even byzantine. It is entirely controlled by the chair of the CHR. Through direct consultations with the members of the bureau, (3) the chair appoints specialists. The overall quality of appointees thus depends largely on the courage, insight, and negotiating skills of the chair. It does not suffice to want to be a special rapporteur, much less to nominate oneself, nor does having a particular interest in a given country or theme carry much weight. Vacancies arise when the CHR, which authorizes and renews mandates, proposes new missions or when someone resigns.

Country-specific and thematic mandates are reviewed annually. In April 1999, the commission instituted a term limit of six years for experts. It is extremely unlikely to assign special rapporteurs who do not have at least the acquiescence of their own governments, although some candidates may not enjoy enthusiastic support from their home countries. Many civil society organizations, at higher decibel levels since the CHR's fifty-eighth session in spring 2002, have criticized the growing politicization of the appointment process, in which the expertise of candidates sometimes appears to be secondary to their political acceptability. (4) In my own experience, special rapporteurs have demonstrated considerable independence of mind and action. Criticisms have also arisen related to the advisability of appointing special rapporteurs who originate from the same region in which their mandate is located. During the fifty-eighth session, for example, the African group insisted on appointing a mandate holder by name i n the resolution on racism, clearly contrary to established procedures. Whatever the merits of the candidate, this initiative was criticized vociferously and appropriately by civil society organizations because of the precedent-setting implications and the perceived threat to the autonomy of appointments. (5)

A common complaint raised by the special rapporteurs themselves is the lack of availability and poor quality of support they receive from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Threats to international human rights norms require the creation of new mandates each year; as a result, services quickly become overloaded, especially because they were inadequate in the first place. Quite simply, mandates proliferate without a corresponding increase in the resources to support them.

To perform their duties, special rapporteurs must secure invitations from member states. Too many governments do not reply or delay responding to requests for a mission. A small but growing group, consisting of thirty-eight forthcoming countries, has issued "standing invitations." Brazil, Costa Rica, Georgia, Peru, and Switzerland have just joined this select group. Donor governments should provide incentives for others to join the club.

Special rapporteurs take pains to maintain their independence, impartiality, and objectivity; to weigh the information on human rights provided by governments and civil society groups; and to report fully on the progress made and obstacles faced. …

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