The UN and Human Rights: Who Guards the Guardians?

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Book Review: The UN and Human Rights: Who Guards the Guardians? Gulglielmo Verdirame, Cambridge University Press, 2011

 “One should always be aware of the risk that the distance between ‘might on the side of human rights’ and ‘human rights on the side of might may be a short one.’

The UN and Human Rights: Who Guards the Guardians? is based on the premise that UN operations around the world involving humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, and implementations of sanctions have resulted in extensive human rights violations. Yet the UN continues to cite democracy to defend its legitimacy. The book’s author Guglielmo Verdirame quotes David Chandler; professor of International Relations at the University of Westminster and author of Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton, to assert the UN’s defence of illegitimacy.

“… democracy can be taught or imposed by international bodies on the basis that some ‘cultures’ are not ‘rational’ or ‘civil’ enough to govern themselves …  a transitional lack of sovereignty and the denial of self-government is necessary in certain situations.”

According to Verdirame, though the UN is bound by international human rights law and international humanitarian law, institutional concerns for liberty and accountability have faltered in certain cases due to the UN’s legal incompetence, impunity and lack of adherence to human rights standards.

The overstepping of mandates by international organizations bound to the UN has often been shielded by immunity, resulting in conquests of power granted by influential UN member states. As article 105: 1 of the UN charter states, “The Organization shall enjoy in the territory of each of its Members such privileges and immunities as are necessary for the fulfillment of its purposes.” Therefore, human rights violations have been committed by international organizations affiliated to the UN with impunity, impunity which undermines the UN’s accountability.

A historical overview of the UN shows that legislation was always influenced by social, political and economic interests, leading to international human rights discourse which lacked “moral concern” and relied heavily on international relations. Humanitarian discourse plays upon conscience in society, usually bringing about a form of political hegemony which derives its strength from exploiting divisions within a state. The hegemony within human rights discourse has impacted both theory and humanitarian practice, influencing the humanitarian agenda without emphasizing the necessity to maintain human rights.

The lack of clear legislation on human rights in UN member states makes accountability a distant phenomenon. This is combined with the fact that most UN operations are carried out in fragile states or areas where tribalism and civil war have created unsustainable situations. After NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo, Secretary General Kofi Annan declared the Responsibility to Protect as a measure which calls for international responsibility of protecting civilians when the state in which violations are occurring is either unable or unwilling to address the problem. Adopted in 2005, the Responsibility to Protect implementation was decreed to cover genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. However, Verdirame argues that this doctrine has not changed the law on humanitarian intervention; it simply reinforces already established principles that necessitate foreign intervention.

Peacekeeping missions have been replete with human rights violations. In Mozambique, UN troops driving UN vehicles picked children off the streets, creating a ring of child prostitution. The incidence of prostitution in fragile states is higher where UN troops are stationed. The absence of a clear legal framework which would allow criminal proceedings against a perpetrator exacerbates the level of impunity. Also, while the International Criminal Court can start criminal proceedings against a perpetrator, agreements exist in which prosecution is not carried out without state consent.

The UN also creates victims through illegality. Taking the example of refugee camps, Verdirame argues that the UN is sustaining and aiding illegality by the existence of camps, which violate basic human rights such as freedom of movement and the right to work. Other punitive measures applied by agencies include food suspension and forced relocation to other camps. An Ethiopian refugee was forcibly relocated to another camp in Kenya after raising human rights awareness with other refugees. UNHCR justified this decision by stating “It is the view of the UNHCR that the series of human rights lectures was a direct cause for the wave of tension and disruption of public order in the camp.” The administration of the camps usually reflects power relations between humanitarian agencies and host countries.

UNHCR exacerbates the powerlessness of refugees by misrepresentation. By using statistics, camp administrators shift attention from the reality of camp imprisonment, focusing instead on the attainment of minimum standards which fail to address the fact that refugees’ incarceration is illegal. On the other hand, in order to promote an ideal picture of camps, visits by high commissioners to the area are greeted by scenes of false utopia. Verdirame quotes an excerpt of a short story written by James Appe.

“… a show is organized with refugee dances and music, and the Commissioner receives little presents from refugees.”

Verdirame states that since UN operations such as peace keeping, international administration, refugee camps management and relief operations are carried out by the UN through other entities, any human rights violation is attributed to the UN, and therefore the UN should be held accountable. “Liberty and human rights do not exist in a political vacuum; the state provides a political space which no international organization has been able to match.” Without UN accountability for atrocities, the state may be destined to succumb to a higher power which wields immunity at will. Verdirame suggests that a process through which international organizations are held accountable for human rights violations would enhance UN responsibility for atrocities committed by its troops, instead of allowing the matter to be judged solely in national courts.  Semi judicial administrative processes, such as ombudsmen roles in violation investigations, member state control over violations and strengthening the international judicial process to assert UN compliance with international law would also serve to weaken the organization’s immunity which also extends to ‘representatives of member states, officials of the UN and experts on missions.’ While immunity does not free the organization from any obligation, it may frustrate the enforcement of law, as stated by Schermers and Blokker, authors of International Institutional Law (2005)

In The UN and Human Rights: Who Guards the Guardians? Verdirame’s analysis of UN operations dispels the myth that international organizations always provide an effective solution to the consequences of war, displacement and poverty. By shifting discourse to the fundamental principles of human rights and moving beyond the established charters, Verdirame places the UN in a position of profound scrutiny. He reverses the prominent human rights propaganda, shedding light on the intricate web of violations to expose a thriving illegal and inhumane administration supported by the rhetoric of peace and democracy.

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One Response

  1. Sahar

    November 19, 2012 2:32 pm

    Way back in 1800’s (the very beginning of) in France, some Finance minister called ‘Mollien’ persuaded Napoleon not to open banque de france branches in every town, i.e. Napoleon wanted to; but was dissuaded by Mollien. Mollien was insisting on moderation, as he feared inflation, of the banknotes being issued by the banque (it had been granted this privilege for a term of 15 years).
    And somehow I reckon, this giving of money by a bank, to only the mid-range and upper-range of the people in the french provincial towns; this attitude took flight. And, as with all paths to wealth; they hauled up the ladder; and though they could do business with banks; the peasants were precluded.
    Constitutions of so many countries from that time onwards, may similarly have adopted this currency mode; and the peasantry, artisans, proletariat, therefore; have never been empowered or even understood the currency power that dictates national policy.
    Only when the proletariat human rights of housing, currency, are resolved, will people recognise their true human rights. And….. their responsibilities.