The United Nations And Human Rights Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 19 March 2017

The United Nations And Human Rights

The developments that immediately preceded the Second World War in field of state-relations irreversibly changed the landscape of the international communities.  The biggest development, if not the most significant, was the establishment of the United Nations.  This move to theoretically unite a war-ravaged world was ambitious and prone to many pitfalls.

            Among the immediate developments that were ushered in by the creation of this supranational institution was the Human Rights Machinery. This significant progress came  “[a]fter centuries of inadequate, piecemeal efforts to protect citizens from abuse by their own governments, in 1946 the international community founded a global human rights institution.  The United Nations Commission on Human Rights became the first international body empowered to promote all the human rights of all the world’s peoples.

The founders assumed that improved respect for human rights would help individuals and would also serve the United Nations’ primary peacekeeping gal by eliminating repressive practices which provoked war.”[1] The importance and legitimacy of the respect for Human Rights and the international promotion of it among the different nations of the world was further “highlighted in Chapter IX of the Charter dealing with international economic and social cooperation in terms of a pledge or commitment of all Member states.”[2]

            Like with many other issues in the political arena, there is a wide schism between the word and the act. “The contributions of the UN must neither be understated nor overstated.  The UN has been an intellectual pioneer in the issues of economic and social development, much more than is often recognized.  At the same time, there have often been omissions and distortions in its work.”[3] While the ideals proclaimed by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, through the different Conventions and texts are many, there is a vocal number of people that believe that the United Nations, together with the mentioned Commission is all rhetoric.

In this, there is a “[s]trong tendency…to put blame for this unsatisfactory state of affairs on the United Nations and it is true that the Organization is in many respects inapt and ineffective in converting the theory of its own words into actual practice.  However, those circles who for good reasons criticize the United Nations would be well advised to do some more soul-searching as to their own direct or indirect share of complicity in bringing about and maintaining structures of injustice.”[4]

            The human rights machinery refers to the different organs and procedures dealing directly with human rights in the United Nations system which includes:

  1. Intergovernmental organs established on the basis of the Charter of the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, and the Commission on Human Rights. The commission on the Status of Women and the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice also address human rights issues within their respective mandates;
  2. Bodies established by human rights treaties;
  3. Reporting, communications, and investigating procedures established by policy-making organs and treaty based bodies;
  4. the parts of the United Nations Secretariat responsible for human rights activities, especially the United Nation High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Division for the Advancement of Women and the centre for International Crime Prevention have also human rights responsibilities.  The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Decision for the Advancement of Women adopt joint work plans.[5]

           “The Charter of the United Nations, with respect to Human Rights bridged the gap between human rightly established a close link between human rights and other world-wide concerns, viz. the maintenance of peace and the promotion of economic and social development.  (…) The United Nations played a dynamic role in strongly supporting the quest for independence of colonial countries and peoples was instrumental in terminating colonial domination and combating racial discrimination.  In no other area did the United National proclaim and defend human rights principles with so much vigour as in the fields of decolonization and racial discrimination.”[6]

            There is said to be three stages of differently focused activities that capture the essence of the Commission’s work in the domain of Human Rights: (1) Standard-Setting (2) Promotion (3) Protection.  These three stages are essential in analyzing the work, whether in a positive or negative light, of the Commission.

            The Standard-setting stage started the inception of the body of the United Nations itself and lasted a decade after (1945-1955).  The most significant output of this stage, and perhaps one of the most significant in human history, was the articulation of the International Bill of Rights; and for this one must give credit to the Commission who was entrusted with this enormous task.  During the first decade, the Commission “spent most of its time on the elaboration of the draft international covenants and concluded its drafting work with respect to those instruments in the mid-fifties.”[7]

            “Despite adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, concern with and promotion of human rights as such often played little part in the UN’s early work on economic and social development.  The fulfilment of many economic and social rights was certainly implicit in UN concerns and actions for economic and social advance, but references to rights in this work were few and far between.

  Moreover, political and civil and cultural rights mostly got forgotten or ignored in economic writing on development and were treated more as a matter of political and ideological debate in the U.N.  Indeed, in development discussions, the belief became popular that authoritarian regimes had some advantage and even some justification because of their ability to take the tough decisions required—for example, to raise the rate of savings in poor countries.  It was argued that more democratic leaders would find it difficult to take these hard decisions.”[8]

            Although the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was and is considered a huge achievement for the international community, the acceptance was not as ready, much like all the new ideas that come into the field, like gender mainstreaming.

When a popular support for the ideas embodied in the Declaration did not appear on the horizons, the United Nations began a widespread promotional campaign, the second stage (19955-1965). “It was assumed that studies, advice and measures in the field of education and information would in the long run provide a more fruitful basis for enhancing the cause of human rights that the treaty-making process which was undertaken with the elaboration of the International Covenants.”[9]

            However, this particular stage did not receive resounding success either.  The interest that was sparked was not proportionate to the resources of time, energy and money expended to undertake the promotional activities. “[T]hey failed to grasp the interest and the imagination of the United Nations membership and of the public at large.  Moreover, they were too far removed from the main political currents in the World Organization.  The human rights program was functioning in isolation and it seemed to lack the political relevance and for that matter the impetus which is needed for dynamic evolution.”[10]

            Apparently, the fact that “[i]t is one thing to draw up international standards, it is quite another thing to have those standards implemented”[11] began to painfully dawn on the Commission.  It must be said, however, that this unforeseen lack of support was entirely due to the incompetence of the United Nations in general and the Commission, in particular.  External factors of the current times have to be taken into consideration as well.

Despite the end of the war, there was still prevalent “[d]istrust and tensions between nations and peoples, extreme disparities in economic and social conditions between and within nations, religious and ideological antagonism, persistent patterns of racial discrimination and class domination and numerous other factors, including selfishness of individual human beings, affect the realization of human rights with the various societies.  It should also be taken into account that any approach from the viewpoint of violations of human rights is, in the context of inter-State cooperation, a most precarious and delicate undertaking inasmuch as it focuses mostly on weaknesses and failures.”[12]

            It is undeniable, looking at the United Nations history, that the machinery met great difficulties in the human rights ideals across the world and to effectively integrate it into existing government practices.  Due to the few successes of the first two stages, the stage of protection started off with a bumpy ride and is subject to much criticism, which will discussed in the later paragraphs.

            Despite the shaky two decades, it is undeniable that  “the Commission has contributed to the inadequate but nevertheless incremental growth of supranational authority capable of scrutinizing practices that had previously been exclusively within governments’ sovereign jurisdiction.”[13]

The third stage, protection, came right after the standards were set and the same were promoted to the individuals and national governments.  The protection stage is actually the collection of events, still undergoing now, that enforces the standards by “responding to specific complaints against over seventy governments.  The process has increased the Commission’s visibility ad dramatically transformed its operation while exacerbating fundamental differences over whether political or economic, individual or collective rights deserve priority.”[14]

            To guide the protection of the world’s population, the Commission refers to now only their shining accomplishment that was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but other treaties such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Racial Discrimination (1966), the Convention of the Rights of the Child (1989) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. “There can be little doubt that the three greatest intellectual contributions of the United Nations have been human rights on a global scale…”[15]

            Despite the pioneering efforts of the Commission, those that have resulted in both failure and success, a large number of people are highly critical of the United Nations, in general and the Commission, in particular, citing inefficiency, redundancy and an overly-bureaucratic structure as primary reasons. “American critics have made the sharpest attacks, venting their greatest anger prior to 1980 and since then against the UN in general and the Assembly in particular.  The Commissions harshest critic claims that unfair procedures have been manipulated to subvert democratic governments and fundamental rights.  The Commission’s defenders lament it limited impact on government practice and propose a variety of structural reforms.”[16]

            One of the biggest concerns aired by the Eastern bloc is the supposed prevalence of Western values embodied in the different Declaration and Treaties. “Judging by the time spent in drafting and the norms adopted, the Commission appears to have given higher priority to Western sponsored political and civil than to Third World initiated economic and social standards.” [17] Economic concerns were definitely more pressing in the third-world countries where starvation trumped political freedom any day. Although in its defense, the Declaration did have economic rights included in the text.

However, many complain that while that is true,” [t]he Universal Declaration and the two covenants give nearly consideration to economic rights, but create more effective enforcement procedures for civil liberties. The conventions on race discrimination and apartheid affirm the rights of groups as well as individuals but give no special priority to economic concerns.  (…) The consensus decision-making procedure delayed and weakened the 1986 declaration on development.

If any standard setting priority exists, the Commission has given the greatest attention to individual civil and political rights. Despite the strident rhetoric about balancing economic and political rights, the gross violations identified have involved considerably more political than economic injustice.  (…) Complaints about forced labour, particularly involving children, have not prompted a response unless the violation involved mass killing or another top priority.”[18]

            Assuming but not conceding that this prioritization were true, it must be said that such would be essential in the smooth running of an organization in order not to spread oneself too thin. This is particularly true for the United Nations because a  “society must establish value priorities about which rights to protect by law and which violations to punish most severely.  The international community is even more ideologically divided than its constituent members, therefore attempts to enforce universal human rights exacerbate fundamental political differences.”[19]

            Among the popular criticisms of the United Nations Human Rights machinery, the most troubling would perhaps have to be the accusations of the employing double standards; standards that heavily favor Western aggression.  These complaints found legitimacy in the now-infamous UN inaction during the Rwandan genocide. Furthermore, the deafening silence on the part of the UN during the American military operations against Afghanistan and Iraq hit the UN credibility hard and many more joined the others in crying foul.

“Some critics have concluded that politically motivated double standards, selective enforcement and disparate treatment totally discredit the Commission’s enforcement program.  When the Commission acts selectively, its exceptionally rare actions appear arbitrary and capricious.  While Commission supporters also complain that too many serious violation escape scrutiny, they favor imperfect enforcement to none at all.”[20]

            In conclusion, the Commission was “ill-equipped to cope with the underlying military and economic causes of the worst human rights violations.  At best its measures temper and moderate the most extreme offenses.  Once the killing has begun, human rights remedies, like United Nations relief for refugees, merely alleviates symptoms.”[21]

            With that said, a new chapter of Human Rights’ protection through the United Nations system was ushered with the extinction of the Commission of the Human Rights in 2006.  Its successor is dubbed the Human Rights Council.  This brings to the playing field a shift in the field of Human Rights and is significant in several aspects. First, it addresses the issue of a much-needed ‘face-lift’ for the image of the United Nations main machine of human rights.  The former Commission had its share of bad publicity and the creation of the Human Rights Council, even if will heavily base its action on those of its predecessors, makes the evolution in thinking and practice much more understandable by the general public.

            Moreover, the Council ushers in a new era in which the Commission would have been hard-pressed to fit in.  This misfit can perhaps be attributed to the fact that the former Commission was created during a different international field, at a time when war was still a fresh memory.  In so many ways, the global community has progressed far beyond the nature of Post-World War II.  Therefore, this new change will hopefully reflect mandates that would be more faithful and effective in these current times.

            A cursory look at the working groups under the Human Rights Council shows that not all was changed, however, and rightly so.  The Council is still carrying out the standard-setting stage, which the Commission excelled at.  Under a standard-setting goal, the Council is currently looking into the expansion of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in order to more accurately portray the Human Rights’ needs of these rapidly changing times.  In addition to this potential expansion, there is also a working group under the auspices of the Human Rights Council that is currently drafting a legally binding instrument for the protection of all persons from enforced disappearances.  This latter on is merely a continuation of the Commission’s work.

            The other working groups of the Human Rights Council do show that they are treading into new territory, which the Commission was criticized for not doing enough.  Under the working groups for special procedures, there are experts on People of African Descent, Arbitrary Detention and Mercenaries.

            There is incredible potential for the Council to do great work in the field of human rights and it is not weighed down by decades of bad publicity.  Although it is too early in the game to call the outcome, this significant change in the United Nations framework will only be effective if the new Council learns from its predecessor’s mistakes in enforcement.  Although the textual and intellectual contribution of the Commission cannot be disputed, these contemporary times need more than non-binding conventions that do not seem to scare those militant with complete disregard for the sanctity and dignity of human life.

            Being a watchdog of human rights in the world cannot be constrained to formulating conventions and treaties. This was where the Commission excelled at and the Council should build on them but concentrate on actual groundwork where they are needed, on the ground and not from some lofty and comfortable climate controlled environment in New York.  In many ways, this shows that the United Nations System has evolved with the times and the old complaints with the old machinery will slowly be forgotten.  This is a perfect time for any enormous changes within the United Nations system in that there is an actual change of face, literally, with the new Secretary-General; therefore any new victories will be counted as part of the new Council, even if it were heavily rooted in the Commission’s work.

[1] Tolley, H., (1987). The UN Commission on Human Rights. London: Westview Press. p.xiii

[2] Cassese, A. ed. (1979) UN Law: Fundamental Rights. van Boven, T., United Nations and Human Rights: A critical Appraisal. p.119

[3] Jolly, R. (2004) UN Contributions to Development Thinking and Practice. Indiana: United Nations Intellectual History Project Series. p.276

[4] Cassese, A. ed. (1979) UN Law: Fundamental Rights. van Boven, T., United Nations and Human Rights: A critical Appraisal. p.120

[5] Symonides, J., (2003) Human Rights: International Protection, Monitoring, Enforcement. UNESCO Publishing. p.5

[6] Cassese, A. ed. (1979) UN Law: Fundamental Rights. van Boven, T., United Nations and Human Rights: A critical Appraisal. p.120

[7] Cassese, A. ed. (1979) UN Law: Fundamental Rights. van Boven, T., United Nations and Human Rights: A critical Appraisal. p.121

[8] Jolly, R. (2004) UN Contributions to Development Thinking and Practice. Indiana: United Nations Intellectual History Project Series. p.8

[9] Cassese, A. ed. (1979) UN Law: Fundamental Rights. van Boven, T., United Nations and Human Rights: A critical Appraisal. p.122

[10] Cassese, A. ed. (1979) UN Law: Fundamental Rights. van Boven, T., United Nations and Human Rights: A critical Appraisal. p.122

[11] Cassese, A. ed. (1979) UN Law: Fundamental Rights. van Boven, T., United Nations and Human Rights: A critical Appraisal. p.125

[12] Cassese, A. ed. (1979) UN Law: Fundamental Rights. van Boven, T., United Nations and Human Rights: A critical Appraisal. p.125

[13] Tolley, H., (1987). The UN Commission on Human Rights. London: Westview Press. p.xiii

[14] Tolley, H., (1987). The UN Commission on Human Rights. London: Westview Press. p.xiii

[15] Jolly, R. (2004) UN Contributions to Development Thinking and Practice. Indiana: United Nations Intellectual History Project Series. p.276

[16] Tolley, H., (1987). The UN Commission on Human Rights. London: Westview Press. p.187

[17] Tolley, H., (1987). The UN Commission on Human Rights. London: Westview Press. p.193

[18] Tolley, H., (1987). The UN Commission on Human Rights. London: Westview Press. p.193

[19] Tolley, H., (1987). The UN Commission on Human Rights. London: Westview Press. p.194

[20] Tolley, H., (1987). The UN Commission on Human Rights. London: Westview Press. p.203

[21] Tolley, H., (1987). The UN Commission on Human Rights. London: Westview Press. p.220

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