How a Human Rights Assessment Mission works

When Hanny Megally, a senior official with the UN Human Rights office (OHCHR), arrived at a square in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, last June, protesters burst out into applause. The protesters insisted that he addressed the crowd. “I resisted as much as possible,” he recounted “but then I took the microphone for two minutes and explained to them why I was in the country: to listen to people and understand what was happening.”

Megally was leading a small team of UN Human Rights staff who visited Yemen in June and July to assess the human rights situation there after hundreds of people had died during clashes between Government forces and protesters.

The UN Human Rights office has staff in more than 50 countries around the world. But especially in those countries where it does not have a presence, an assessment mission can help obtain a deeper understanding of a country’s human rights situation as it develops.

The UN Human Rights chief can decide to send an assessment mission, such as the one Megally headed, as a way to collect information in a quickly changing environment. During the first part of 2011, assessment missions have been sent to Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. The cooperation of the Government is essential to allow an assessment mission access.

“We look at the situation in the country and get a sense of what is going on and make recommendations,” Megally explained.

If circumstances warrant, the Human Rights Council can decide to send investigative missions, which investigate human rights violations, and, where possible, identify the perpetrators. Assessment missions are small in size, usually only three or four UN Human Rights staff members.

Members of these assessment missions gather information by meeting with government officials, opposition leaders, human rights defenders, members of civil society, victims of rights violations and their families, religious leaders and internally displaced people. Frequently they visit prisons and hospitals. They also collect materials like photographs, videos, reports and other documents that might help in establishing the human rights situation.

After the selected team is identified, team members carefully study and analyse the situation in the country, with the assistance of other colleagues who have knowledge of the region or who provide technical expertise. Visits within the country are scheduled with the assistance of UN agencies and international and national non-governmental organisations already operating there.

Once inside the country, a hotel room is usually converted into the mission’s base of operation. That is where people can go to tell the UN team about their experiences. In Yemen, Megally was impressed by the many women who “came to the hotel and waited long hours to meet with us,” he said.

There was also a poet whose tongue had been cut off while he was detained by armed factions. He now speaks with great difficulty. “After what happened, he did not call for vengeance but kept hoping for reconciliation: reconciliation and talks to bring Yemen out of the problems that it was facing,” Megally said.

During an assessment mission, situations of danger may occur and fear can sometimes surface. “At night there was heavy shelling and small gunfire during the day,” Megally recounted.
Yemen is one of the many countries across North Africa and the Middle East where demonstrators have taken to the streets in large numbers this year to call for greater democracy and freedom.

The report of the assessment mission to Yemen will be made public and presented to the Human Rights Council at its three week session which starts on 12 September 2011.

12 September 2011

UN warns of a humanitarian crisis in Yemen