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The UN Experts Shining a Light on Human Rights Violations

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By Sean Buchanan

NEW YORK (IDN) – The experts who fan out across the world to research, hold consultations and gather information on a vast range of human rights violations often find themselves caught in the crosshairs of international and domestic politics. Independent of governments and institutions – including the UN’s Human Rights Council which appoints them.

They occupy a unique investigative role that allows them to shine a light on alleged violations perpetrated across the world, with mandates to “report and advise”, both as specialists focusing on specific forms of abuse of international human rights law such as torture, human trafficking or the right to privacy, but also to carry out country-specific investigations.

Every October, these experts – or Special Rapporteurs – come to UN headquarters in New York to update the UN General Assembly on their findings, and what they have to say about their work, which often sees them criticising States and other powerful institutions on behalf of vulnerable people across the world, makes interesting reading.

We cannot afford to stay silent

Speaking to UN News, a bulletin providing the latest news from the global UN system, one of these experts, Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said that the murder of Jamal Khashoggi just over a year ago, was particularly shocking, and not just for the gruesome details examined by the human rights inquiry into the killing, which she led: “The other thing that shocked me was the attempts by governments around the world to move on. Some governments made strong statements but, very quickly, there was an attempt to move on to business as usual”.

“I was shocked by the G20 Meeting in Osaka, when the U.S. President literally embraced the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, a few days after I published the finding of my report, which raises extremely serious questions regarding the responsibility of the Crown Prince”, she said. “It was so inappropriate for the U.S. President to go out of his way to demonstrate his affection for the Crown Prince, just as it was shocking to see the silence of everyone else in the room at that G20 meeting.”

“It’s one thing not to act, but it’s another thing to be silent altogether. And we cannot afford for human rights-friendly governments to be silent in the face of, or when confronted with, the manipulation and politicisation of meetings, when witnessing the trampling on human rights protection, she added.

As one of the more high-profile rapporteurs, calling out governments and heads of state, Callamard has frequently been the subject of criticism and attacks. In 2017, for example, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte insulted her, and made threats of physical violence, in response to her comments on the country’s “war on drugs” campaign, that has led to thousands of deaths.

Callamard said she is unconcerned by such attacks, citing the safety in numbers that comes from the fact that many of the statements released by Special Rapporteurs are jointly issued:

“We feel stronger in our determination because numbers play a role. That doesn’t stop social media trolls, or governments, from criticising us, sometimes in terms that are really inappropriate. But this is nothing, compared to the threats experienced by the people on whose behalf we are working”.

Fighting antisemitism, the ‘canary in the coalmine of global hatred’

Over the past 12 months, the world has seen a rise in antisemitic violence, prompting UN Secretary-General António Guterres to warn in January that “the old antisemitism is back – and getting worse.”

Delivering his report on antisemitism to the General Assembly, Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, described antisemitism as the “canary in the coalmine of global hatred”, which “poses a threat to all societies if left unaddressed.”

Shaheed previously served as Special Rapporteur for human rights in Iran, during which time he faced significant criticism from the Iranian authorities and was eventually barred from entering the country. For him, this goes with the territory: “I think every time someone speaks up for human rights, there’ll be somebody who will not be happy with that.

If you are speaking up for what is right, then you have to prepare to face the criticism that comes with it, and what enables me to go on, is the fact that there are people who need attention, and there are people who find value in the work. I do that despite opposition from governments. Very often, however, they take notice and do the right thing.”

Speaking to UN News, Mr. Shaheed said: “I am very concerned, in my mandate, about rising global intolerance, and I think that the place to start off is the oldest hatred, because if we learn how toxic antisemitism, conspiracy theories, and scapegoating are, then we begin to address all the other issues as well. For me, antisemitism is a particularly pernicious form of hatred”.

Surviving slavery, and the ‘tenacity of the human soul’

Another human rights issue that has persisted over centuries, is slavery. More than half of all countries have yet to criminalise it, and some 40 million people around the world are enslaved, a quarter of them children.

Urmila Bhoola, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, works globally to advance human rights and end child labour, child marriage, forced labour and other contemporary forms of slavery.

She told UN News that in addition to being committed to supporting workers’ rights and ending their exploitation, her mandate is also focused on “the specific impact of slavery on women and children, so it is an opportunity that allows me to make a greater contribution to the rights of workers and to really pursue my commitment of ending the extreme forms of exploitation that we find in the world today.”

As Special Rapporteur, she has seen first-hand the devastating impact of contemporary slavery and she recalled a particular example in Africa:

“The one situation that really had a major impact on me was meeting some of the women in a village in Niger, which was my first country mission. I met a survivor who brought a case at the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) Court of Justice against her government, because she had been sold into slavery by her master. She managed to recover compensation, but also recovered her dignity because the court ruled in her favour.

“So I met her and a number of women who had escaped from slavery:  they had been forced to become ‘fifth wives’, which is when a master and his four wives, literally employ someone, normally a girl, to work as a slave in the household.

“Some of them had terrible stories: one of them had her eye put out by her master, because she refused to comply with his demands. Their resilience and dignity, despite the experiences that they had gone through, really struck me.

“I feel that everyone I’ve met, every survivor and victim, has told a story with so much dignity, and they speak so much to the tenacity of the human soul.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 10 November 2019]

Photo: Agnès Callamard, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, OHCHR. Source: UN News.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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