Call to Action on Human Rights: How the “Special Procedures” Help Sustain Peace

Photo: UN Peacebuilding Support Office/Colombia

W e have a choice to make. Collectively. Stay on our present path, with growing tensions, environmental degradation, climate chaos and instability. Or choose a breakthrough, towards a safer, more peaceful future. That was the stark warning from Secretary-General António Guterres as he launched his report Our Common Agenda last September. But what would changing course imply? For one thing, according to the Secretary-General, it means putting human rights center stage.

Blatant disregard for human rights is at the root of many of the complex crises we are experiencing today. As Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stressed in his report, Our Common Agenda, “While upholding human rights is an obligation for all States, beyond that it is also time to treat rights as problem-solving measures and ways to address grievances, not just for individuals but for communities at large.” Our Common Agenda also unequivocally calls for a fuller use of the human rights mechanisms to solve pressing social, economic and political challenges and to better link them with other processes to maximize their impact.

Indeed, there is clear recognition of the relevance of human rights in addressing root causes, triggers and drivers of crisis and conflict, and in anticipating or responding to contemporary challenges and risks. This has opened space for broader human rights engagement. Since 2016, the UN’s Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO) within the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) is exploring how to strengthen engagement and collaboration between the human rights system and the peacebuilding architecture.

The Chair of the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) has a standing invitation for an annual briefing to the Human Rights Council, which is certainly a step forward towards creating greater engagement between the human rights system and the peace building architecture. Florence Foster from the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO), in a 2021 report prepared with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and titled, “Sustaining Peace: How Human Rights Can Help”, describes this step as “an entry point for increasing formal and informal interactions through briefings and meetings at principal and expert levels, which could see more regular exchange of good practices and information.”

Human Rights Council in session, Geneva. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

The report also touches on the role of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. This was also the topic of a virtual talk held in November 2021, organized by the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO) in collaboration with OHCHR and QUNO, where their contribution to sustaining peace was discussed in-depth. The Special Procedures are independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective. They are often characterized as the eyes and ears of the Council, receiving information from people all around the world.

Special procedures mandate holders undertake country visits to engage with all stakeholders, including affected communities, look into allegations of human rights violations, contribute to the development of international human rights standards, engage in advocacy, raise public awareness, and provide advice to governments and other stakeholders on improving practices.

Special Procedures play an important role in conflict prevention and sustaining peace. They can draw the attention of the international community to emerging crises involving human rights violations and recommend early action to mitigate risks of violence and conflict. In addition to sounding the alarm, mandate holders can also propose concrete and innovative solutions to overcome challenges and rebuild societies after crisis. A recent report of the High Commissioner for human rights illustrates the extent to which special procedures contribute to assisting States and other stakeholders in preventing human rights violations and abuses, demonstrating their significant prevention potential.

“Prevention is part and parcel of the work of Special Procedures,” explains Victor Madrigal-Borloz, Chair of the Coordination Committee of the Special Procedures and the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. He noted that roughly a third of all Special Procedures mandates have specific reference to prevention in their mandates.

Mandate holders can interact with a range of international and national stakeholders, crucially with UN representatives, State officials as well as a range of non-governmental actors. “This is really an added value of the Special Procedures”, Nathalie Rondeux, Coordinator of the Coordination, Information and Communication Unit of the Special Procedures Branch of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, adds. “Indeed, they can engage with non-traditional actors and go to territories where sometimes it’s a bit more complicated for the UN to go. Within the framework established by the General Assembly, mandate holders do have more flexibility than others.”

Special Procedures can contribute to upstream prevention, throughout the consultations they conduct during country visits, their public statements, urgent appeals and communications, and the preparation of reports and recommendations. Country visits by mandate holders produce recommendations that are significantly connected to the prevention of human rights violations, but also the observation of democratic erosion, says Madrigal-Borloz.

“We see co-option of legislative structures, co-option of judiciary structures, dismantling of checks and balances, jailing of opposition leaders previous to elections, and so on and so forth,” Madrigal-Borloz says. “All of these are predictors of democratic erosion, and they are very, very clearly connected to crisis and political conflict.”

The prevention role of special procedures cannot occur in isolation. It needs partnership and cooperation with all concerned at the UN and at the country level to bear fruit. One of the best entry points for engagement is to identify the human rights priorities of a given country and to work with them, which then gives an opening to work on other issues as well, Rondeux explains.

Reports on country visits by mandate holders include very concrete recommendations about how to solve the problems identified during such visits. Rondeux recalls that in 2019, for example, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of association and the Special Rapporteur on food visited Zimbabwe. It was the first time the country opened its doors to special rapporteurs. They both highlighted some early warning signs, which were transmitted to relevant people within the UN for further action on the ground.

Special procedures also exercise their prevention role from a thematic perspective, says Rondeux, referring for example to the project of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises on business, human rights and conflict-affected regions: toward heightened action. The Working Group is working with various UN and other actors to develop tools on the role of businesses in conflict prevention and peacebuilding. Rondeux stresses: “When all the forces are aligned, we can really inform the UN response and sometimes prevent a crisis from developing.”

To learn more about the achievements of special procedures, see the annual report on special procedures OHCHR | Annual reports on Special Procedures and OHCHR | and Making a difference: Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council

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The online magazine of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs

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Politically Speaking

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The online magazine of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs

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