UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
In this article, we shall examine the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). We shall specifically discuss the history and formation of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the mandate of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as various contributions that the office has brought to issues of human rights and international development since its formation as a human rights entity.
The History of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Out of the United Nations General Assembly, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was established in 1993 (Mertus, 2009). However, one may argue that the first ideas for a High Commissioner for Human Rights go back to the early days of the United Nations itself. For example, “Professor Rene Cassin suggested the establishment of a post of Attorney-General for Human Rights who could assist aggrieved individuals and groups in proceedings before a new international human rights tribunal. [However], Cassin’s proposal was flatly dismissed as unworkable” (Mertus, 2009: 9). But state and non-state actors continue to advocate for such a position. For example, NGOs such as various Jewish organizations–such as the Consultative Council of Jewish Organizations wanted this position established so that the rights violations that occurred during the Shoah would not take place again (Mertus, 2009). Along with these groups, states such as Uruguay, in the early 1950s, also wanted such as position, so that the attorney-general would be able to “prove a means of implementing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was being drafted at the time” (UN Secretary General Note, 1982, in Mertus, 2009).
Nevertheless, the human rights emphasis of the United Nations continued, as a host of conventions and various human rights bodies were created throughout the subsequent decades. And related to the position of High Commissioner for Human Rights was the creation of the United Nations High Commissioner’s Office for Human Rights. But while there were calls for the High Commissioner, it took decades for the realization of this vision. With the rise of human rights cases and and claims being made through the United Nations, many felt that the United Nations did not have the necessary mechanisms in place to hear all of these complaints, or to effectively manage various human rights issues coming out of the international organization. Thus, “[a]s a solution to the growing human rights enforcement gap, the idea of a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights re-emerged as an attractive prospect” (Mertus, 2009: 11). It was in the early 1990s, with many suggesting 1992, that the idea of an office for human rights came about (Mertus, 2009). Then, the idea was introduced at the World Conference in December of 1992, where there was great support for the idea. And a year later, “[i]n December 1993, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 48/141, establishing the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as the umbrella and coordinating body for all of the UN human rights machinery” (Mertus, 2009).
Many were also happy with the creation of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, particularly given the difficulty in states attempting to stop conversations about human rights; the Soviet block countries, for years, attempted to stop ideas of individual rights from taking off in the United Nations (Mertus, 2009). So, the hope and understanding was that with the creation of the OHCHR would come a more direct commitment to not only norms creation, but also further protections of human rights through the United Nations (Mertus, 2009).
The Mandate of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
The Mandate of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is extensive; the organization is involved in a wide range of activities with regards to international human rights. Namely,
“The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is mandated to promote and protect the enjoyment and full realization, by all people, of all rights established in the Charter of the United Nations and in international human rights laws and treaties. OHCHR is guided in its work by the mandate provided by the General Assembly in resolution 48/141, the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent human rights instruments, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, and the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document.
The mandate includes preventing human rights violations, securing respect for all human rights, promoting international cooperation to protect human rights, coordinating related activities throughout the United Nations, and strengthening and streamlining the United Nations system in the field of human rights. In addition to its mandated responsibilities, the Office leads efforts to integrate a human rights approach within all work carried out by United Nations agencies” (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2014b).
Related to this, Mertus (2009) explains that “The mandate of the High Commissioner encompasses the following:
- promote and protect effective enjoyment of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, including the right to development;
- provide advisory services, technical and financial assistance to states that request them;
- coordinate United Nations education and public information programs in the field of human rights;
- help remove the obstacles to the full realization of human rights and prevent the continuation of human rights violations throughout the world;
- engage in a dialogue with governments in order to secure respect for human rights;
- enhance international cooperation for the promotion and protection of human rights;
- coordinate human rights promotion and protection activities throughout the United Nations system; and
- rationalize, adapt, strengthen and streamline the United Nations machinery in the field of human rights in order to improve its efficiency and effectiveness” (Mertus, 2009: 13).
In terms of the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, as of 31 December, 2013 there are over 1085 staff members in the OHCHR. Furthermore, they have offices in Geneva, New York, as well as “13 country offices and 13 regional offices or centers around the world” (OHCHR, 2014a).
Mertus (2009) argues that there has been a great deal of expectation with regards to the activities of the OHCHR. With regards to this issue, she states:
Ever since the office’s founding, then, a heavy burden has been placed on the OHCHR. New challenges are constantly being presented to the High Commissioner charged with leading the office. With the increased awareness of human rights issues and the growing tendency of states to invoke human rights as integral to foreign policy decisions, the expectations upon the UN human rights system have increased dramatically in recent years. Demands on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights further increased as a result of the direction given by the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, as part of his “Agenda for Further Change” (8).
Activities of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is carries out a number of functions and activities. One of the most noted responsibilities of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is to help streamline the United Nations’ activities on human rights throughout the entire international organization. In terms of the more specific work that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the OHCHR makes itself available for “technical assistance” to countries or other actors that need help on issues of human rights. For example, activities can include training judges, police, or the military, helping in writing laws, offering advisory support on the human rights organizations throughout the United Nations, helping NGOs in their human rights work, as well as offering human rights education, which includes but is not limited to human rights publications out of the OHCHR (Mertus, 2009). More extensive work in a country may lead to the establishment of field or regional offices in that country (Mertus, 2009).
In terms of the procedure for OHCHR activity with regards to technical assistance, “[t]he technical assistance procedure can be broken down into a five-step process: (1) a request for technical assistance is made to the OHCHR; (2) the OHCHR conducts a needs assessment…; (3) should there be a need for the project that the OHCHR can address, a project is formulated; (4) the project is implemented; and (5) the project is independently evaluated” (UNHCHR, 2008, in Mertus, 2009: 16). There are many different types of technical assistance that the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights offers. For example, the OHCHR helps train judges, police, and others int the legal-related sector on matters of human rights. The entity also helps in the advising and even drafting of human rights related documents. This can also include helping national parliaments on human rights legislation. Moreover, the OHCHR also aids in state reporting on human rights treaties, can help with elections, and also works to support non-state human rights actors within civil society (this can be with guidance, in the form of providing materials, or in human rights education) (Mertus, 2009).
Interestingly, one of the more debated aspects of the United Nations mandate (at least by the United States) had to do with the inclusion of development activities. The United States had historically taken issue with regards to socio-economic rights, particularly during the Cold War. For example, “It was over objections of the United States that the UN General Assembly in 1986 proclaimed development as a human right. At that time, the United States cast the only vote against the Declaration on the right to development” (Mertus, 2009: 13-14).
Current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
The current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein of Jordan. According to the United Nations Office of the Secretary General, Al Hussein “…played a central role in the establishment of the International Criminal Court, notably as the first President of its governing body, chairing complex, often pioneering, negotiations on “elements” of individual offenses falling under the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.” Furthermore, “He served as political affairs officer in UNPROFOR in the former Yugoslavia, from 1994 to 1996. He worked intimately with peacekeeping issues for over nineteen years, notably as one of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s five eminent experts on his “Senior Advisory Group” on the reimbursements to countries contributing troops to peacekeeping. Following allegations of widespread abuse committed by United Nations peacekeepers in 2004, Mr. Al Hussein was appointed by Kofi Annan as Adviser to the Secretary-General on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse” (United Nations Office of the Secretary General, 2014). He was also the President of the United Nations Security Council, “the Chair of the Consultative Committee for the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)[,]” as well as being “a member of the advisory committee to “The Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation”, base in The Hague” (United Nations Office of the Secretary General, 2014).
And just recently, Al Hussein replaced Navi Pillay as the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Pillay served until August 31st, 2014. In an interview, Pillay was asked about some of the highlights of her actions as High Commissioner, as well as things that she wished she would have done in a different manner. She responded by saying that “Well, I would have done much more to help prevent conflicts if I could. I’ve visited many countries, like 50 to 60 countries. There was always some benefit in going personally, speaking to civil society in those countries, speaking to the head of State, head of government and the various ministers, and offering assistance which is really our expertise in addressing human rights violations, in helping to change laws, in training the judiciary and law enforcement officials to adopt a human rights-based approach” UN News Centre, 2014). However, she was also quoted as saying that
“I am very proud that we’ve addressed all issues, all rights of all persons. We’ve addressed discrimination on all grounds, various grounds that had not been addressed before, such as minorities, migrants, LGBT people, caste-based discrimination and people with albinism.
My office then also addressed both civil and political rights – these are the fundamental freedoms of speech and assembly, the right to protest, the right to be free from torture or disappearances… as well as economic and social rights. This has led us squarely into putting human rights language in the sustainable development goals and in the post-2015 development agenda.
I’m also very pleased that all our efforts have resulted in the Secretary-General’s endorsement of the policy ‘Rights Up Front’ and that means that inside the UN every department, no matter what their respective mandates are, has committed to advancing the protection of human rights. So both internally in the UN and on the ground through, now, 67 presences all over the world, we’re translating the normative standards into reality” (UN News Centre, 2014).
Mertus, J. (2009). The United Nations and Human Rights: A Guide for a New Era. New York, New York. Routledge.
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2014a). Who We Are: Available Online: http://www.ohchr.org/en/aboutus/pages/whoweare.aspx
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2014b). Who We Are: Mandate. Available Online: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ABOUTUS/Pages/Mandate.aspx
UNHCHR (2008). www.unhchr.ch/html/menu2/techcoop.htm
United Nations Secretary General (1982). Summary of Information Regarding Consideration by United Nations Organs of the Question of the Establishment of a Post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Note by the Secretary General (E/CN.4/Sud.2/1982/26), 30 July 1982.
United Nations Secretary General (2014). Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, High Commissioner for Human Rights. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Senior Management Group. Available Online: http://www.un.org/sg/management/senstaff_details.asp?smgID=186
United Nations News Centre (2014). High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. 28 August 2014. Available Online: http://www.un.org/apps/news/newsmakers.asp?NewsID=110 goo