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Human rights experts have a key role in early warning

By virtue of their independence and the nature of their mandates, human rights experts known as special procedures are “well placed to function as early warning mechanisms, as alarm bells,” according to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. They are “the eyes and ears of the international human rights machinery”.

Machetes collected after the mass killings in Rwanda - © UN/Photo“Human rights violations are often a root cause of conflict and human rights are always an indispensable element in achieving peace and reconciliation,” observed the High Commissioner. She was speaking at a roundtable discussion at the United Nations in New York on the role of special procedures in providing early warning and alerts to other topical or emerging issues. “There is a need for increased attention to human rights issues in actual or impending crises, and for effective channels of communication with special procedures to be established in relation to early warning” she said.

There are currently 39 independent human rights mandates of the Human Rights Council investigating either thematic or country issues. They cover all human rights: civil, cultural, economic, political and social. The mandates focus on specific situations and make recommendations to governments to address problems, wherever they occur in the world.

The experts report publicly on their work to the Human Rights Council and many also report to the United Nations General Assembly.

Special Procedures “are able to help defuse tensions at an early stage,” explained Asma Jahangir, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, “My mandate is not limited to the monitoring of situations of human rights violations but also has a role to play in the detection of early warning signs of intolerance.”

But early warnings must be followed up by governments, she pointed out. As an example, she cited the “unfortunately prophetic” warning of her predecessor when he reported in 1996 that the degree of polarization in some pockets of different faith groups in India could trigger mass killings in the event of political exploitation. “Six years later, more than a thousand people were systematically killed in Gujarat,” she said. “In my follow-up report earlier this year I also expressed concerns.”

Early warning extends to situations beyond armed conflict. The Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, explained how he had drawn the attention of the international community to the global food crisis. The issue had been discussed at a special session of the Human Rights Council last year and his recommendations have been followed up by the body at subsequent regular sessions. 

Another example cited during the roundtable discussion related to extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions. A former Special Rapporteur on these issues, Bacre Ndiaye, visited Rwanda in 1993, a year before the outbreak of genocide there. He reported that “cases of intercommunal violence” had been brought to his attention, which clearly showed that the victims had been targeted solely because of their ethnicity. He even said that these attacks could lead to genocide. When he presented his report to the then Commissionon on Human Rights seven months later in 1994, he noted that the situation had worsened and also that he had not received any comments from the Rwandan government. Unfortunately his conclusions and recommendations were not acted on, and a few weeks later more than 800,000 people were killed in the Rwanda genocide. 

In October this year, the current Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, issued a public statement warning that “Alarm bells are ringing loudly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo”. This followed his fact-finding mission to that country. Country visits can play a critical role by enabling the independent experts to examine first hand the situation on the ground. But such visits are conditional on the consent of the country involved.

Special Rapporteurs are a natural early warning mechanism, according to Vitit Muntarbhorn, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, because they come from backgrounds that make them information analysts and advocates, in touch with the local environment. He described them as “activators and mobilizers of the global community”, who speak publicly through the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly, joint statements, reports and other means. They also reach out to victims to help seek redress and can “trigger” action through their links with civil society and through the media, national human rights organizations and other stakeholders.

As the examples cited by speakers at the roundtable showed, the special procedures can have an important role in indicating the potential for more serious human rights abuses, including conflicts, and in helping the international community avert them. But, as the representative of Amnesty International pointed out to the participants, “Where is the political will of states to act upon their warnings?” she said. “Meaningful action to address the situation is dependent on a government’s willingness to act on their recommendations.”

23 November 2009