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Home Archive for category "Human Rights Council"

Slavery in Domestic Work: The Potential for State Responsibility?

Published on September 17, 2018        Author:  and
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On 10 September 2018, UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Urmila Bhoola, presented her latest report to the Human Rights Council. The report focuses on an often-hidden aspect of modern slavery – the slavery and servitude of “marginalized women workers in the global domestic economy” (para 11). In this post, we highlight key findings of the report and also indicate areas for further exploration, including the potential use of State responsibility.

11.5 million domestic workers are international migrants, which represent 17.2% of all domestic workers and 7.7% of all migrant workers worldwide (para. 31). To give a sense of the scale, in Hong Kong there are 370,000 domestic workers of which 98.8% are women.

The social, cultural and racial biases these women face are often extreme. To give an example, Sondos Alqattan, an Instagram star and makeup artist with over 2.3 million followers, criticised new laws in Kuwait giving Filipino workers one day off per week and preventing employers from seizing their passports. She said, “How can you have a servant at home who keeps their own passport with them? What’s worse is they have one day off every week”.

The UN Special Rapporteur notes that the domestic work sector accounted for 24% of forced labour exploitation in 2017 (para 43). Exploitative practices include psychological, physical and sexual violence; retention of identity documents preventing freedom of movement; withholding of wages; and excessive overtime (para 42).

There are two aspects of the Report that make a particular contribution to the discussion of slavery in domestic work. Read the rest of this entry…

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The Quandaries of Data Analysis and Methodologies in Rule of Law, Development, and Human Rights Assessments: New Challenges for UN Special Rapporteurs

Published on July 20, 2018        Author: 
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If Professor Hans Rosling’s famous last opus, Factfulness (April 2018)is to be believed (as well as Bill Gates’ effusive review here), we all tend to have grimmer views of the state of economic development in the world than actually borne out by reality – especially on issues of global health and poverty.  Referring to the “developed world” and the “developing world” is a meaningless and unhelpful binary that glosses over significant welfare, health, life expectancy, education, and human capabilities differences between and among the hugely diverse “middle income countries” (e.g. the World Bank divides them into “lower middle-income economies – those with a GNI per capita between $1,006 and $3,955;  and upper middle-income economies –  those with a GNI per capita between $3,956 and $12,235 (2018)). Even the World Bank stopped using the distinction between “developing” and “developed” countries starting with its 2016 World Development Indicators, ultimately concurring with the view that the “developing country” and “developed country” distinction was not useful and too broad for targeting international development programs for partner countries, especially when assessing progress in all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The United Nations does not have a formal definition of “developed countries” versus “developing countries”, instead insisting that its classifications in UN methodology are “for statistical convenience and does not express a judgement about the stage reached by a particular country or area in the development process”.  However, these categories are widely used in the UN system anyway, including in the UN’s 2017 Sustainable Development Goals Report as well as in the datasets used for the 2018 SDG16 Data Initiative Global Report (on the goal of achieving peaceful, just, and inclusive societies). If the distinction between “developing country” and “developed country” is operationally meaningless for formulating and evaluating development programming, shouldn’t international lawyers and scholars also take note of the imprecision of this category when putting forward their observations and assessments of the state of rule of law, economic development, poverty, and human rights in the world?  (Note:  I do plead guilty to having, in previous works, alluded to the same classifications.)

Professor Rosling’s opus came to mind recently after the debate spurred from recent sharp criticisms issued by US Ambassador Nikki Haley and by experts from the Heritage Foundation, against UN Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty and Human Rights and NYU Law Professor Philip Alston, who had issued several statements (see here, here, and here) and his full 4 May 2018 report on the state of poverty within the United States (finding, among others, that 40 million people across the United States live in poverty, while 18.5 million live in extreme poverty, and an additional 5 million in conditions of absolute poverty; or alternatively put, “1 in 8 Americans now live in poverty, with half of this population living in extreme poverty, according to U.S. government estimates.”).  While Ambassador Haley alleged that the report “categorically misstated the progress the United States has made in addressing poverty and purposely used misleading facts and figures in its biased reporting”, the Heritage Foundation challenged the income-based poverty measures used by Professor Alston and charged that “these “official” income figures exclude substantial off-the-books earnings among low-income households and omit roughly 95 percent of the $1.1 trillion U.S. taxpayers provide in means-tested cash, food, housing, and medical benefits for low-income persons each year.”  Professor Alston has criticized the United States’ withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, and charged that the Trump Administration was exacerbating poverty for millions of Americans.  The Special Rapporteur has not yet responded to the challenges against the data sources used, and the quantitative and qualitative methodologies used for this fact-finding mission and its conclusions.

When I examined the index of currently publicly available Reports of the Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, it was somewhat surprising that there was no separate initial report on the quantitative or qualitative methodologies adopted for the country assessments on the state of extreme poverty and human rights (although each country assessment thus far discusses observations from anecdotal evidence, official statistics from government sources, and other sources).  Considering the very difficult remit of Professor Alston – who as Rapporteur is an unpaid expert and admittedly not an official of the United Nations – I wondered why it did not appear from the reports that the UN’s considerable resources on SDG monitoring and assessment (especially SDG1 on eradicating poverty), as well as on economic vulnerability and risk monitoring, had been deployed and allocated to assist in the Special Rapporteur’s challenging fact-finding mandate.  Note that Professor Alston has himself championed interdisciplinarity and cross-verification in human rights fact-finding and yet, the UN remains unable to reasonably coordinate its resources, data, and interdisciplinary expertise before it dispatches its unpaid experts for overwhelmingly difficult fact-finding missions as “Special Rapporteurs”. Read the rest of this entry…

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Parliaments as Human Rights Actors – Proposed Standards from the UN

Published on June 21, 2018        Author:  and
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On 13 June 2018, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its report on the Contribution of parliaments to the work of the Human Rights Council and its universal periodic review, which will be discussed at the Human Rights Council session starting 18 June. The report includes a welcome proposal for a set of standards – the draft Principles on Parliaments and Human Rights – that cover the (i) mandate; (ii) responsibilities and functions (both domestically and vis-à-vis the international human rights system); and (iii) composition and working methods of a parliamentary human rights committee.

We have been advocating for the adoption of standards for four years, and in 2017 we published suggestions for the content of such standards in a chapter in Saul, Follesdal & Ulfstein (eds.) The International Human Rights Judiciary and National Parliaments (CUP) based on our work on this topic since 2013, and on outline standards presented at a Human Rights Council side event in 2014. This post discusses the importance of the proposed UN standards, and what needs to happen next.

Why should parliaments engage with the UN human rights mechanisms?

When we consider human rights actors on the domestic level, we typically think of the executive, the judiciary, the national human rights institution (NHRI), and civil society. But parliaments can also play a vital role. They can oversee the actions of the executive by ensuring that laws, policy and practice are in compliance with international human rights commitments. Yet, many parliaments do not fulfil this role. The OHCHR report and draft Principles could be crucial in encouraging greater parliamentary engagement on human rights. Read the rest of this entry…

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Was the UN Human Rights Council Wrong to Back China’s “Shared Future” Resolution?

Published on April 10, 2018        Author: 
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On March 23rd, the 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution (A/HRC/37/L.36) introduced by China, calling for “mutually beneficial cooperation” among states to promote human rights, with “the aim of building a community of shared future for human beings.” The vote was contested, with 28 states voting in favor, 17 abstaining, and one, the United States, voting against the motion. There has also been considerable criticism by legal experts and political officials in the West, who have argued that China’s resolution is an attempt to indirectly excuse its own rights lapses or to dilute the idea of international monitoring.

The substantial opposition, or at least discomfort, with the resolution seems somewhat inconsistent with the general thrust of the text, which consists largely of affirmations of the importance of human rights and endorsements of existing UNHRC practices and procedures. However, two aspects of the document (aside from the dissonance between rhetoric and practice) have been identified as problematic by critics. The first is the apparent focus on “state to state” obligations rather than on individuals as the focus on international human rights law, and the associated invocations of “cooperation” and “multilateralism” as opposed to “unilateral” critique. The second, and as I will argue the less convincing of these criticisms, is that by giving international endorsement to China’s “community of shared future” concept, the UNHRC is being made a vehicle for ideological propaganda of the Xi Jinping administration.

Dividing Positions from Practice

There are reasons to take the first ground of critique quite seriously. There is no question that China has historically sought to shift focus from individuals as rights-bearers to the rights and obligations of states, as well as to avoid external criticism for its rights record. It has opted out of optional protocols that establish individual complaint mechanisms in international human rights treaties and has, for example, issued reservations to Article 20 of the Convention against Torture allowing confidential inquiries by the Committee of the CAT. In terms of its practice on the UNHCR and in other UN human rights contexts, it has by various means discouraged NGOs and individuals from engaging with reporting mechanisms, rising to the level of harassment or detention of civil society members seeking to do so. In one of the more infamous such cases, the activist Cao Shunli, who sought to participate in China’s Universal Periodic Review in 2013, was apprehended by police at Beijing’s airport and then detained for several months—only to die while in custody, allegedly due to refusal of state security agents to provide medical care for several long-term illnesses. Read the rest of this entry…

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SOGI Mandate Passes Third Committee Hurdle

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On 21 November 2016, the Third Committee of the General Assembly (GA) voted to uphold the United Nations mandate of the Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in a very closely fought vote. The decision represents a major stepping stone for the promotion of LGBTI rights, and provides much-needed reassurance regarding the ability of the Human Rights Council (HRC) – and the broader UN machinery – to adequately combat international human rights challenges.

Two main points of contention emerged during discussions leading up to, and during the day of the vote: 1) whether there is a legal basis for the mandate (the substantive argument); and 2) whether the GA has the power to override decisions made by the HRC (the procedural argument). It was the latter argument that generated the most discussion, and will therefore be the main focus of this post.

This post will begin with an analysis of what exactly happened on the day of the vote, and will be followed by an exploration of the two main arguments. The post will end with a discussion on what this vote could mean both in the short-term and long-term.

The day’s proceedings

When formally introducing the resolution to the Third Committee, the African Group had announced an oral amendment to OP2, stating that consideration of resolution 32/2 should be suspended until the 72nd session of the GA, a detail missing from the initial draft which had left it open to the criticism that the mandate was being suspended indefinitely. As noted by the representative for Brazil an optimistic reading of this amendment would have been misleading: specifying that this item will be revisited in one year’s time does not alter the far-reaching negative impact of the move. Furthermore, there are no reasonable grounds to think that the position taken by the African Group would change by next autumn. Read the rest of this entry…

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What is the Future of the SOGI Mandate and What Does it Mean for the UN Human Rights Council?

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Last June, human rights defenders the world over celebrated the historic step taken by the Human Rights Council (HRC) to create a UN Special Procedures mandate on sexual orientation and gender identity. It had taken years of advocacy by the LGBTI and wider human rights community, and careful manoeuvering within the UN system to attain this belated but historic victory. For many years, LGBTI issues were addressed through reports and resolutions on extra-judicial and arbitrary killings and on violence against women, as well as through joint statements by UN member States.  However, since the ground-breaking Toonen vs Australia decision of the Human Rights Committee in 1994, the UN system has gradually improved with respect to the recognition and the level of attention it has paid to the particular threats faced by the LGTBI community. In relation to the HRC specifically, there has been a gradual build-up to the appointment, from a subject specific resolution in 2011 (17/19), which commissioned a special report  (HRC/19/41) by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), to a panel discussion in March 2012, to a follow-up resolution in 2014, and an updated report in 2015.

Human Rights Council resolution 32/2 which created the SOGI mandate was not universally endorsed by States; indeed, it was adopted by a vote of 23-18 with 6 abstentions, a noticeably high number of opposing votes in the light of general voting patterns, even among similarly contentious mandates, such as the ones on unilateral coercive measures (vote of 31 in favour, 14 against and 2 abstentions); international solidarity (33 in favour, 12 against, 1 abstention); and the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order (29 to 14, with 4 abstentions). Vitit Muntarbhorn, the expert charged with carrying out the mandate, was appointed in September in line with the rules of procedure of the HRC. Although reports of the Council are subject to endorsement by the General Assembly (GA), in practice this is generally a formality. As is typical following appointment by the Council, Mr. Muntarbhorn has already begun working on this long overdue mandate.

However, in an unprecedented move, the work of the mandate is now being threatened by the African Group of UN Member States, Read the rest of this entry…

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What’s the Point of ‘Naming Names’ in International Inquiry? Counseling Caution in the Turn Towards Individual Responsibility

Published on November 11, 2016        Author: 
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Introduction

In recent years international commissions of inquiry (‘commissions’) have been drawn into the realm of individual responsibility under international law. This is vividly illustrated by the Human Rights Council’s recent request that the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria investigate events in Aleppo to:

“identify all those for whom there are reasonable grounds to believe that they are responsible for alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law, to support efforts to ensure that perpetrators… are held accountable”.

Similar mandates have been awarded to several other UN inquiries, including on Darfur, Guinea, Libya and the Central African Republic. In practice, most commissions identified suspected individuals confidentially. Exceptionally, the commissions on Guinea and Timor-Leste published names in their public reports.

Making findings of (alleged) individual responsibility is a relatively novel development in the fact-finding context. It reflects an idea that human rights are best protected when individuals are held to account for their acts. But it stands in a certain tension to the quasi/non-judicial nature of these bodies. Similar issues have been considered in relation to truth commissions. Yet the inquiry context poses different challenges. Commissions are not intended to replace criminal trials or function as truth commissions ‘lite’; rather, they may recommend such accountability mechanisms as follow-up. Commissions also face very practical challenges in terms of time pressures, resource limitations and, increasingly, a lack of access to the territories of concerned states, all of which can impede their investigations.

The move towards the identification of individuals is part of a certain trend towards the criminalisation of international inquiry. In this post, we would like to investigate to what extent this is helpful. We  discuss some normative and methodological questions arising from individualised accountability and proposes some possible ways forward. Read the rest of this entry…

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Beyond the Mantra, Towards the Granular: The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression’s Report on the Private Sector in the Digital Age

Published on July 5, 2016        Author: 
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I. Introduction

“To what extent should the private sector be responsible for the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression?” This is the question at the heart of the latest report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Professor David Kaye (“Special Rapporteur”), which he presented at the 32nd session of the Human Rights Council, which ended last week. The current report does not purport to offer comprehensive answers, but instead maps out the myriad of ways in which the private sector impacts upon freedom of expression in the digital age, the “regulatory ecosystem on the Internet”, and the legal and policy issues that deserve particular attention. Surprisingly, UN human rights bodies only began really grappling with the challenges of the Internet five years ago. In this period, there have been reports of the Special Rapporteur and his predecessor on encryption and anonymity tools, mass surveillance, and the Internet as well as a series of Human Rights Council and General Assembly resolutions on human rights on the Internet and the right to privacy in the digital age. Such texts have made the statement that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression” into a mantra. Against this backdrop, the current report is pioneering for several reasons.

II. Breaking new ground

First and foremost, the report is comprehensive in its mapping of the digital environment and related freedom of expression challenges. As the delegation of the Netherlands recognised, it is the “first full overview of all private actors in ICT whose actions impact freedom of expression and opinion”. The report disaggregates the “vast” and “overlapping” range of roles played by private sector actors in “organising, accessing, populating and regulating the Internet” and distinguishes certain pressing legal and policy issues, concerning content regulation, surveillance and digital security, transparency and remedies. In doing so, it identifies the array of private actors including telecommunications and Internet service providers, web hosting services, hardware firms, search engines and social media platforms, media companies, companies producing surveillance technologies and multi-stakeholder processes. It also, importantly, draws on examples from many countries around the world, including Sweden, Russia, Uruguay, Brazil, China, India, South Africa, Tanzania, the UK and the US.   Read the rest of this entry…

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