Asian Centre for Human Rights

Dedicated to promotion and protection of human rights in Asia

[The weekly commentary and analysis of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) on human rights and governance issues]

Embargoed for 29 June 2005
Review: /79/05

The OHCHR: The challenge of maintaining and enhancing credibility

(Excerpts from ACHR’s report, UN Human Rights Council: Illusions, Realities and Kofi Annan’s Search for Legacy, of 23 June 2005)


“Member States’ proclaimed commitment to human rights must be matched by resources to strengthen the Office’s ability to discharge its vital mandate. I have asked the High Commissioner to submit a plan of action within 60 days” - Secretary General Kofi Annan in his report, In Larger Freedom

The High Commissioner for Human Rights has submitted OHCHR Plan of

Action: Protection and Empowerment pursuant to the call of the Secretary General. It is a big plan but as OHCHR puts it, “Ultimately, however, this plan of action will remain largely aspirational without a significant increase in resources, including a greater proportion of the regular budget and additional extra-budgetary support.  At present, the human rights programme receives only 1.8 per cent of the United Nations budget. The bulk of OHCHR resources,including for key activity requested by United Nations bodies, are therefore in the form of extra-budgetary contributions”. The total estimated annual budget of OHCHR for 2005 is $86.4 million out of which the OHCHR has appealed for an additional US$59.8 million from voluntary funds to compensate for the budget shortfall.

Voluntary funds constitute two thirds of the budget for OHCHR. According to 2004 Annual Appeal of the OHCHR, the OHCHR required US$ 54.8 million from voluntary contributions in addition to a requested allocation of US$ 27.1 million from the United Nations regular budget. According to 2003 Annual Appeal, funding from the United Nations regular budget covered 33 per cent of OHCHR’s activities during 2003 (expenditure of US$ 25.8 million), while voluntary contributions covered 67 per cent of activities (expenditure of US$ 52.5 million).  In 2002 Annual Appeal, the OHCHR expected an allocation of US$ 22,455,150 from the UN regular budget and an additional US$ 55,778,746 from voluntary contributions.

The OHCHR may be receiving only 1.8 per cent of the United Nations budget but the presence of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is second only to the Secretary General. The OHCHR Plan of Action: Protection and Empowerment raises questions about its credibility as it seeks to expand.

The first area of work is greater country engagement through increased deployment of human rights staff to countries and regions. It may seriously undermine the reputation of the OHCHR if its field missions operate under the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). When the Foreign Ministry sneezes, UN Resident Coordinator catches cold unless s/he is in a poor and a small country. Wherever the OHCHR field missions worked under UNDP, OHCHR’s credibility suffered. OHCHR’s mandate is to raise the issues publicly, which is not the way UNDP operates. When did UNDP raise any critical human rights issue with the governments except funding the programmes which the governments approved? With over 60% of the budget for the OHCHR coming through voluntary funding, can the OHCHR have field missions all over the world like the UN Specialised agencies? The OHCHR must have independent mandate in its field operations.

The OHCHR’s regional office in the Asia-Pacific region has failed to make its presence felt, mostly due to the lack of human and financial resources of the regional office based in Bangkok. While an evaluation of the Regional Arrangement for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Asian and Pacific Region is being conducted by Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, the OHCHR needs to share the recommendations of the evaluation with the NGOs and not only with the governments. The Asia-Pacific region does not have any regional human rights mechanisms. Most Asian governments, which questioned the universality of human rights on regional and cultural particularities, have realized after a series of Annual Meeting that the particularities in the region are too strong to have a regional human rights instrument. Most members of the Commission on Human Rights from Asia have been instrumental in weakening the mechanisms of the Commission on Human Rights and no regional human rights mechanism for the Asian region can be adopted without undermining the existing international human rights standards. The implementation of the recommendations of Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn’s evaluation will be crucial for implementation of regional and national programmes in the Asian region.

The second area of work is an enhanced human rights leadership role for the High Commissioner including an annual thematic human rights report. Asian Centre for Human Rights consistently held that this idea despite all the good intention of the OHCHR is fraught with dangerous implications for its credibility. To put it crudely, the OHCHR may shoot itself on the foot through the proposed thematic Annual Report. Does the OHCHR have the capacity to compete with Annual Report of the US State Department and numerous national organisations? If the report of the OHCHR is not as critical as those reports, OHCHR may end up certifying the governments. Certainly the US State Department report does not focus on the United States, but its report on the incidents of human rights violations on other countries are quite accurate. Does the OHCHR have the human capacity to prepare such a report?

Most governmental delegations participate in the annual session of the Commission on Human Rights not to promote human rights, but to defend the interests of their States and to avoid scrutiny and shaming. No region is exempted. At the 60th session of the CHR, after the visit made by the Special Rapporteur on Torture to Spain, the Spanish delegation launched an unusual offensive against him, despite the widely recognized objective report submitted by the Rapporteur to the Commission. At the 59th session, the representative of the Philippines launched similar offensive against the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples.

Will the OHCHR or its staff be able to withstand pressure from the governments if they speak the truth in a thematic annual report? If OHCHR can withstand such pressure, they will be applauded. Otherwise, the danger of OHCHR losing credibility cannot be overlooked.

The thematic Annual Report of the OHCHR will also raise question of duplication and usefulness of the thematic Special Procedures, which have been specifically recognised as the strength of the Commission on Human Rights by the President of General Assembly in the Draft Outcome Document and which will most likely be preserved by the Human Rights Council. In the name of ensuring universality of reporting on human rights issues of all the countries, the LMG countries may as well recommend to eliminate Special Procedures or call for vote on what thematic issue should the OHCHR’s thematic Annual Report focus. The OHCHR’s proposed thematic Annual Report will pose the most serious threat to the thematic Special Rapporteurs.

The third area of work is closer partnerships with civil society and UN agencies - through the establishment of a civil society support function; support for human rights defenders; stepped up commitment to Action Two activities for rights-based approaches and national protection systems; and human rights guidance to the Resident Coordinator System. The problem is OHCHR follows “out of sight, out of mind policy” with regard to the civil society groups based in the regions. Certainly, there has been more debate on rights based approaches to development among the UN agencies since the HURIST programmes have been undertaken. However, with the adoption of Millennium Development Goals, the rights based approaches to development have been undermined and the OHCHR has an uphill task on this issue.

The fourth area of work is more synergy in the relationship between OHCHR and the various United Nations human rights bodies including the possible relocation of CEDAW to Geneva. The OHCHR stated that in 2004 “over 1,300 communications were sent to 142 Governments, addressing 4,448 individual cases. There is very little follow-up, however, to these reports and communications, and the rapporteurs themselves (who serve in a volunteer, part-time capacity) are not in a position to follow up, especially on individual cases”.

A question, which most human rights trainers on international human rights procedures face, is how are the complaints taken up and followed up by the Special Procedures and OHCHR? As more and more NGOs come to know about the truth, the OHCHR’s credibility will suffer on a daily basis.

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