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International human rights bodies worldwide need more support and more self-criticism

Strasbourg 14/04/2008
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Governments have agreed to set up multilateral mechanisms to monitor and assist the realisation of international human rights norms. This reflects a recognition that these standards are indeed an international concern and that cooperation on their implementation is desirable. However, it does happen that these bodies are criticised by the same governments. Some of this criticism is not well-founded and rather reflects an unease about hearing uncomfortable truths. This does not mean that international human rights mechanisms are free from flaws. There is a need for an open and constructive discussion on how to improve their capacity and overall efficiency.

Quite a number of human rights mechanisms have been established since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted 60 years ago, within the United Nations but also on European level. Several of them are underfunded which has caused difficulties for them to undertake serious, professional work. Committee members and rapporteurs are in several cases not even paid but act as volunteers. My own office - supposed to assist 47 countries - still has a modest, though expanding budget.

This will hopefully change when governments realise the full importance of these human rights mechanisms, diverse as they may be. For that to happen it is essential that these bodies do their utmost to prove their value – and learn from the experiences so far in order to improve their effectiveness..

One very clear lesson for both governments and the international organisations is that the human rights mechanisms are more effective when their independence is recognised and respected, as it is the case, I am pleased to say, for those mechanisms created in the Council of Europe framework. This experience should influence the definition of the mandate of the mechanisms and the appointment of office holders. It underlines also the importance of ensuring funding which would not create dependencies.

The human rights bodies should of course avoid any country stereotyping and always stand above the party-political struggles. The protection of their impartiality is of key importance. Governments on their side must be prepared to listen to well-founded criticism even when such messages could be utilised by the opposition. They should also accept that the international representatives are in touch with and listen to non-governmental groups.

Another lesson is that the various human rights bodies must cooperate and coordinate their activities. Some governments have genuine problems in coping with the many human rights visitors and the reporting requirements and to integrate the recommendations into concrete policies.

This underlines the need for information sharing, rational division of labour and coordinated actions between the international actors. Confusing overlap should be avoided and a principle of subsidiarity be established. It is absolutely essential that the various mechanisms avoid giving conflicting messages.

For the moment there is a good atmosphere of cooperation between the European human rights institutions, including with the relevant parts of the United Nations. I myself spend quite a lot of time on such coordination and feel that it is worthwhile in order to maximize our combined impact. Usually, we do build on one another’s findings in a meaningful manner.

The coordination between the monitoring mechanisms and the assistance bodies has also improved. For instance, UNICEF is analyzing the Concluding observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child when designing its programmes and the European Union has helped to fund some of the follow-up programmes of my Office.

Though problems have been reduced by the good will and cooperation of the actors involved, I would recommend a very critical attitude towards suggestions of new international or European human rights mechanisms. Many of the newly defined issues can be tackled within the existing structures.

The key aspect in any analysis of the international human rights bodies has to be whether they have a real impact and genuinely protect and improve the concrete situation of people. This is what it is all about. This requires a clear mandate, necessary resources and an approach which is strategic – recognizing the enormous difficulty of the task and its political sensitivity.

A major point is how the international actors relate to actors at the national and local levels – the authorities but also the media and the civil society, including representatives of the victims. This is not an easy task. It takes a lot of experience to grasp the real problems and to give useful advice.

This is not only a question of good appointments and sending the right delegates, it also touches on basic approaches. It is essential that the international actors avoid being seen to “take over” the role of national forces and institutions. International monitoring should to a large extent focus on whether there are national capacities to spot problems and address them adequately and effectively– to “monitor the monitors”. Our advisory services should focus on strategic points like the work of the ombudsmen, the functioning of independent specialised agencies and of course the functioning of the judiciary.

Advice may be given on, for instance, education and training but international bodies should avoid taking over such functions and thereby steal the space from domestic actors, who know better the local possibilities and problems, and how to address them. We have to scrap the idea that the international institutions are at top of a hierarchy – we are rather at the service of the members or supporters of these bodies. The international actors should also focus on the sharing of knowledge about successful approaches in other countries.

There is a need now for a broader evaluation of ways of improving and strengthening the international human rights system. The leading agencies should set up a task force for this purpose. Independent experts should be invited, among them persons with genuine experience of working for human rights in their own societies– persons we have in mind when we talk about Human Rights Defenders.

Questions which could be addressed would include:

• How can the independence and integrity of the monitoring mechanisms be best protected and upheld?

• What further steeps are needed to facilitate coordination and division of labour between the agencies on different levels?

• What more could be done to relate problem definition to concrete advice and support to the national level?

• What should be done to ensure sufficient financing of international human rights work, and the recruitment of the necessary staff?

• What is the experience of “mainstreaming” of human rights into development and security programmes? How should these efforts be pursued?

Such an evaluation should of course also draw lessons from the successes – and there have been successes. To take but a few examples from the Council of Europe monitoring bodies, I have seen prisons rebuilt to the better after criticism from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and new laws against racism adopted after recommendations from The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI). Recommendations from my predecessor or myself have led to the closure of outdated prison facilities, improvements in asylum procedures, creation of Ombudsman institutions, changes in laws concerning the compulsory placement in psychiatric institutions, adoption of laws against discrimination.

A review of the practical impact of the Council of Europe mechanisms in improving respect for human rights in member states was published in April 2007. It contains a large selection of policy reforms and legislative changes, which can somehow be linked to judgements of the European Court of Human rights , the ECRI, the CPT, the supervisory mechanisms of the European Social Charter and the European convention for the Protection of National Minorities. While we all, of course, recognize that changes are usually the result of multiple forces, the compilation is indeed encouraging.

However, there is no place for complacency. Instead we should constantly remind ourselves about the enormous responsibility that comes with the fact that so many people all over the world have put their trust into our serious efforts.

Thomas Hammarberg