Friday 1 June 2012

The United Nations and Human Rights: Fit for purpose?

Rachael McCallum

To ensure that all human beings are granted their human rights, there is the need for international oversight bodies to set up laws, administer justice and ensure that governments and people are always observing human rights in all nations around the globe. One such global entity used to ensure human rights is the United Nations. The basic aim of the United Nations is to honour its Charter, which is built on the fundamental principles of human rights.
But how efficient and effective is it in discharging its function as a primary human rights body around the globe?  
First of all, whilst an obvious point, it must be pointed out that establishing international human rights targets and getting nations to commit to them are quite difficult particularly because one state’s human right situation does not directly impact on another’s. So it has been difficult for the UN to get the commitment of all nations in several matters. For instance, with the crises in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2006, nations were not so much interested in contributing troops and resources to avoid the racial injustices and conflicts. This led to the continuation of killings and serious humanitarian problems in the region. Thus in cases where nations and people are not interested in the affairs of a given nation, the United Nations is usually not effective in discharging its human rights roles. 
Furthermore, the United Nations charter does not lay out specific rules and regulations for governments to follow. The elements of the charter are so vague and generic that nations with a wide diversity of standards can have very different human rights standards and still claim to be honouring the Human Rights requirements of the UN. This always leads to conflicts between democratic states (Western European and North American nations) that respect human rights and authoritative states that have limited human right standards (like the former USSR and China).  
This diversity means that nations are inclined to distrust each other and due to that, there are always inherent conflicts that stand in the way of the operation of the United Nations. There have been instances where it was fashionable for the USSR to stand against anything the United States was lobbying for. This has stood in the way of humanitarian support from the UN and in other situations the UN machinery was incompetent in the face of proxy wars that caused serious humanitarian crises during the Cold War.
This situation is not helped by the fact that, in some respects, the UN is limited in its ability to handle human rights abuses in parts of the world because the Charter gives it limited power to enter certain nations to take action. Steiner & Alston (2000) identify that Procedure 1503 only allows a confidential study and report on the matter and the worst outcome any government or groups of persons can suffer is the loss of reputation when they are named after the investigation. This was the case in Sudan where Omar Al Bashir continue to remain in power though he has suffered some loss in reputation. Procedure 1235 also allows some cases to be referred to supervisory organs for human rights evaluation and recommendations. This has not helped much, especially in Africa, where the African Union seems to be limited in capacity and ability to control and instil justice in some cases. 
Also, in cases where the UN is limited to enter a nation and instil human rights where the government is cited for abuses, the UN often sanctions the nation. However, the use of sanctions is problematic as it affects ordinary civilians of the nation and not the actual people in government who are really responsible for the abuses. 
As well as challenges on the ground, the UN is also affected by internal politics, which is especially emanated by the five permanent members of the Security Council. Since its inception, the UN has had some difficulties in honouring human rights standards that it set because of the actions of some powerful nations in the group like the five vetoing members, USA, Britain, France, China and Russia. 
First of all, some nations around the world can choose to blatantly disregard the human rights standards set by the United Nations and other international bodies because they are rich and powerful. The United States and Britain chose to invade Iraq against the protests of the UN, EU, Arab League and many other international human rights groups. The invasion came at the cost of many deaths, displacement and several harsh human rights problems but because these two nations are powerful, no nation has been able to hold them accountable. Secondly, some nations have internal human rights problems but because they are more powerful than many international human rights organisations, they go unquestioned. China is a prominent example. Also, some nations have poor human rights records around the world but because their ruling governments are supported by one or more of the UN’s five vetoing nations, the human rights abuses in those nations also go unanswered. 
Although these challenges have rendered the UN ineffective and inefficient in handling matters related to human rights, they have been able to achieve a lot of successes in its 66 years of existence. It is important not to lose sight of the fact the basic, most popular and most influential set of human rights principles is the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is supported by the over 200 nations of the world who are members of the United Nations and it is reflected in the constitutions of almost all nations of the world. Due to this, the UN human rights standards are the yardsticks of almost every legal system on earth, and have been effective in creating and disseminating a domestic and international human rights norm. 
Also, the UN has focused on empowering regional and sub-regional organisations to promote and create awareness of human rights issues around the world. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was empowered by the UN through the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to maintain and restore peace to Liberia. 
Human rights protection is weak at the UN not because of some mistake in how the UN behaves but because of what the UN is – the problems are in the design not the proclivity.  It is these structural and internal problems that make it difficult for them to champion the human rights agenda they have and leads us to question the UN’s engagement with human rights.
Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, President of the General Assembly. UN Photo/Nick Bajornas.
However, as Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, the 66th elected president of the UN General Assembly recently told The Independent, the UN must urgently reform to stay relevant in a world facing unprecedented conflicts and is not fit for purpose.
Indeed, without radical overhaul, the UN will not provide the leadership the world seeks from it and needs from it.  The UN that we need is one equipped to help the world face key global challenges, which so far the UN has been somewhat removed from addressing.  

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