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Human Rights and the UN: Progress and Challenges
Alex Bellamy
UN Chronicle
Enduring structural improvements in human rights are very difficult to achieve. Global indices suggest that the world is little different today from a decade ago. (…) In- tractability seems to confirm mounting evidence that foreign assistance for governance and human rights are unlikely to deliver sustainable national improvements without genuine local political leadership. (…)

Bearing this in mind, there is much that has gone well during Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s first term. Despite the enduring challenges, on average fewer people are arbitrarily killed and tortured by their own Government, armed conflicts are less likely to reignite, and when violence against civilians does erupt, these episodes tend to be shorter and less bloody. There has also been institutional progress. Most notably, the Secretary-General’s commitment to advancing the responsibility to protect (R2P) has delivered real progress. The new Joint Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and on the Responsibility to Protect, approved by the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly in late 2010, has already made a positive contribution by providing early warning and by urging Governments to uphold their responsibilities. The Joint Office has also begun to assist in the strengthening of regional and national capacities to detect and mitigate risks associated with genocide and mass atrocities. The UN Secretariat has strengthened the place of human rights protection more broadly in its work, including mandating the protection of civilians in peace operations, the growing use of political offices to support the promotion of human rights in- country, and desk-to-desk links between the Secretariat and regional arrangements.

Under the able stewardship of Navanethem Pillay, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been strengthened. Not only has the High Commissioner herself played a key role in alerting the world to imminent dangers and reminding individual Member States—including Libya, Syria and my native Australia—of their legal responsibilities, the Office has also extended its human rights reporting operations and produced significant reportage, including the mapping exercise on atrocities and other human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (…)

The Human Rights Council has shown signs of shedding some of the problems that plagued its predecessor. Over the past five years, the Council has proven itself prepared to eject members who abuse the rights of their citizens, and the Universal Periodic Review process has become a core part of the Council’s business, building shared expectations among states. This work has also helped disseminate human rights norms across the world. (…)

The creating of the entity UN Women in 2010 marked a potentially significant step forward for the promotion and protection of women’s human rights. (…)

Nonetheless, significant problems and challenges remain:
• As recent experience with Syria shows, it continues to prove difficult in some cases to build consensus on specific issues relating to the protection of human rights.
• The Human Rights Council remains prone to politicization (…)
• The human rights of already marginalized groups have come under concerted attack from various quarters in recent years. Particularly notable are the violation of women’s human rights, the proliferation of homophobic legislation and other violations against homosexuals, a trend towards the arbitrary detention of those that seek asylum, and abuses against itinerant peoples.
• Problems of coherence remain. Some United Nations officials in the field remain uncertain about the place of human rights in their work and are unsure as to whether they are expected to raise protection issues with host Governments. (…)
• Parts of the world have effectively become “human rights free zones” where core rights are abused with impunity. (…)

In his 2011 Cyril Foster lecture, the Secretary-General outlined an ambitious agenda for human protection. This was a call for the internalization of human rights throughout the United Nations system. It is, of course, notoriously difficult to think strategically about how best to use the limited resources of the United Nations to promote and protect human rights in the face of strong countervailing forces and so many competing priorities. (…) The challenge now is to make these institutions work.

This means ensuring that the practices of the United Nations contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights everywhere. Progress has already been made, but more could be achieved by bringing the ethos of “delivering as one” into the human rights field, so that the United Nations system speaks as one and brings all of its resources to bear in the service of human rights. For example, to prevent the grave crimes associated with R2P and ensure that no part of the world becomes a de facto “human rights free zone”, the United Nations system could mainstream an “atrocity prevention lens” to guide policymaking and programming. (…)

Ultimately, though, much rests on the Member States and the strength of their commitment to human rights. The capacity of the United Nations to promote and protect human rights is influenced by the resources available to it, and the tools it is permitted to use. For example, as the Universal Periodic Review process becomes habitual, it could be strengthened to impose a more rigorous test, be made a part of the selection process for election to bodies such as the Human Rights Council or Security Council, and be connected to other parts of the system responsible for the provision of material and technical assistance to states. The Office of the High Commissioner can support such endeavours, but they are ultimately a matter for Member States. The same is true of the search for consensus in the face of human rights crises. Member States recognize that the United Nations is most effective when its decision-making bodies are united, but they bear the primary responsibility for reaching a consensus.

(…) Progress was made in his first term, but further work is needed to challenge the structural impediments to sustainable change. With the institutional architecture now in place, moving in concrete ways toward “delivering as one” provides one avenue by which the United Nations might strengthen its role as an agent of positive change in human rights.
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