Chasing Shadows: UN Communications on Human Rights Defenders
by Janika Spannagel
Each year, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders receives a large number of submissions regarding individual cases of concern. Only a fraction of these cases are addressed by the rapporteur’s communications procedure. Nobody can determine with certainty how many cases have fallen through the cracks over the 17 years the mandate has been in existence, or who tends to benefit from the UN’s attention and who is often overlooked.
Based on extensive empirical research, this policy paper provides the first systematic analysis of all communications sent out to date. It finds credible indications that communications have a positive impact, but also demonstrates that there is room for improvement. In particular, a more deliberate prioritization of cases is required to ensure that the mandate can serve its protective purpose more effectively under the constraints of very limited resources.
Unlike outgoing communications, incoming cases are not publicly reported or even systematically registered by the UN. Furthermore, the criteria for the selection of cases (beyond basic eligibility) remain largely undefined. The consequences of case selection, whether according to explicitly stated rules or implicitly applied criteria, are quite significant. Currently, only 550 individual cases can be addressed by the mandate each year. Given this reality, the case selection process defines which types of defenders under pressure receive the UN’s attention and legitimization – and which do not.
The policy paper advocates an approach that aims to maximize the potential impact on the individual defender while systematically striving for a balanced documentation of cases. It makes an evidence-based argument for a number of adjustments and offers actionable recommendations to the mandate as well as to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to states, and to civil society actors regarding how to enhance the effectiveness of UN efforts to protect threatened human rights defenders around the world.
Among others, the paper recommends that the use of joint special procedures communications should be the exception rather than the rule, that states’ replies to cases should be systematically monitored and the respective data publicly released, and that more concerted international action should be taken with regards to ‘softer’ forms of repression.