At the ongoing session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), China has proposed a resolution focused on international cooperation. This could have been a positive step toward bridging the considerable gap between recognition of human rights and their implementation on the ground. With the benefit of hindsight on such resolutions at the HRC, however, such a critical linkage is far from guaranteed.
The UN has taken considerable strides in the quarter century since the Vienna Declaration asserted that “all human rights are universal, indivisible, and interdependent and interrelated” and put economic, social and cultural (or ESC) rights on equal footing with civil and political rights.
The UN Human Rights Council has appointed experts on issues of water and sanitation; adequate housing; food; health; and extreme poverty. Tangible guidance now exists to help states navigate the potential pitfalls of neoliberal economic policies, such as guidelines on structural adjustment, forced evictions, and hazardous wastes. New standards are also under discussion, with the appointment last year of a special rapporteur on the right to development, the ongoing work on a declaration for the rights of peasants and the ongoing negotiations of a binding treaty on business and human rights.
Despite these efforts, there is an ever-growing realiaation in the international human rights community that they are not enough. The ability and space for the most vulnerable to exercise and enjoy ESC rights is shrinking in the face of widening social and economic inequality. And the option for them to use the tools available to them, including the UN, to seek accountability is challenged by persistent impunity for reprisals against defenders at both the national and international levels.
The resolution presented by China at the HRC’s ongoing session in Geneva could, at face value, offer some assistance. Given China’s expressed support for economic, social, and cultural rights and its oft-claimed record in lifting some of its citizens out of poverty, one might think that this resolution, titled “Promoting Mutually Beneficial Cooperation in the Field of Human Rights,” could be a further step to implement ESC rights globally.
From a political perspective, however, the resolution’s emphasis on the state-centric approach and its perspective on two major mechanisms of the Council call into question any gains – or “wins” – it may promise.
First, this resolution privileges the sovereign state over people and communities, focusing on intergovernmental dialogue and cooperation as (per an earlier draft) “the only viable option” for multilateral engagement. It seeks to downplay and even discredit a vital pillar of the human rights framework and the Council’s mandate: accountability for violations and justice for victims.
The “cooperation” which the resolution presents can become an escape route for governments who prefer an absence of scrutiny for their questionable practices, and go to great lengths at home and abroad to avoid it. For civil society and affected populations, however, the move away from scrutiny is a move to entrench impunity for human rights violations.
In my former work as special rapporteur, I greatly benefited from the interdependence of human rights inherent in my mandate, allowing me to present more comprehensive views on the trends and challenges to realization of ESC rights.
Second, the current resolution urges that experts should recognize the importance of “mutually beneficial cooperation” in the protection of promotion of human rights – while simultaneously failing to define that cooperation, and indeed asking for the Council’s Advisory Committee to conduct research. In short, it puts the cart before the horse, and risks treading on the experts’ independence.
Third, although the language has improved through the active engagement of a range of states (including many from Latin America), the resolution also tries to redefine the role of a key UN Human Rights Council mechanism, the Universal Periodic Review.
The UPR is a process where every UN member state is reviewed once every five years on all human rights issues – not just those enshrined in treaties to which they are parties. It is an important mechanism to identify human rights problems and enhance attention and scrutiny to often neglected areas, including ESC rights.
As I have reflected previously, state engagement with the UPR in the first 10 years largely neglected ESC rights. The current third cycle is supposed to have an explicit focus on the “implementation of human rights.” In this context, we need to find this balance of attention to and implementation of the two sets of human rights – that is, civil and political rights on the one hand and ESC rights on the other. How will this be possible if, as the current resolution implies, there is a downplaying of constructive criticism and recommendations that for all countries help fill the gaps in the realization of rights?
The concerns I have with this new Chinese led effort are not new. Last June, for example, China presented a resolution on the right to development that sought to frame this norm as the right to development for states, not for people and communities. Far from achieving its purpose of empowering vulnerable populations, when cast this way the right to development is used by states to justify major construction and development projects, which often trample the rights of the very populations the norm is intended to protect.
Add to this the fact that China has, in recent years, adopted a vocal and assertive role in a range of international spaces, and has put significant resources into two pillars of the UN – peace and security and development. The result could be, without swift action, a third pillar of human rights with a heavy-handed focus on dialogue and consensus, and a reduction in transparency and accountability. This is made even more disconcerting when we consider that this is advanced by China, a government regularly cited in the secretary general’s report as engaged in reprisals against human rights defenders at home and abroad.
Surely the realization of human rights of the world’s most vulnerable is much more complex than what can be achieved through “international cooperation” and a state-centric view of the right to development.
Any gains from such efforts are almost meaningless unless accompanied by strategies to hold states and other actors accountable for human rights violations and for disregarding globally accepted human rights standards. Any new resolution emanating from the principal UN body on human rights must rely primarily on the available precise language and detailed interpretation of human rights standards.
By focusing on the yet undefined and vague notions of “mutually beneficial cooperation,” at the cost of clear human rights language of recognition, monitoring, and accountability, the current draft of the resolution fails the majority of the world’s population.
For the billions of individuals and communities who cannot wait any longer for their rights to be respected, the Council must have dialogue with scrutiny, assistance with accountability. I urge states to stand with those victims and to ensure the Council can continue to live up to its mandate.
Miloon Kothari, based in New Delhi, India is an Independent Expert on Human Rights and Social Policy and former Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing with the UN Human Rights Council.