Reform of the UN human rights petitions system

Marc Limon (URG)

The human rights communications procedures are central to the purpose, effectiveness and credibility of the United Nations – representing the only direct link between the victims of human rights violations and the international human rights protection system. However, over the past half-century, what was once a vibrant part of the UN’s human rights work has become increasingly neglected and somewhat discredited – the victim of its own complexity and distance from ‘the Peoples’ of the UN. This report on the UN’s system of individual human rights communications is the result of a two-year project led by the Universal Rights Group. It offers a number of conclusions. First, each of the three main communications procedures plays a distinct and crucial role in the overall UN human rights petitions system. Each has its own strengths when viewed from a victim’s perspective. Second, the challenges faced by, and the weaknesses of, each procedure, especially when viewed from a victim’s perspective, show significant overlap. Third, these weaknesses or challenges cannot be addressed, within existing resources, by focusing on each procedure in isolation. Rather, States and the UN Secretariat must once again (as was the case in the late 1970s when the then Secretary-General published a ground-breaking analysis of contemporary communications procedures and their interaction) look at the procedures as three interconnected and complementary parts of a single coherent UN petitions system – with a single user interface and, perhaps, a single Secretariat. Fourth, modern technology presents enormous opportunities to finally put in place such a ‘fully coordinated approach’ within ‘a fully automated system’ (as called for by the Chair of the Commission on Human Rights in 2000). With these conclusions in mind, this policy report makes a number of recommendations. In particular, the report argues that reforming and re-energising the UN human rights petitions system should be a priority for States as they look towards the 2021-2026 review of the Human Rights Council by the General Assembly. In considering those reforms, States should adopt a victim’s perspective, viewing the current system – and possible changes thereto – through the lens of those people who need to use it. In the opinion of the Universal Rights Group, such reforms, in order to be successful, must be based on the overarching objective of establishing a single, coherent UN human rights petitions system comprising a single user interface and single UN petitions Secretariat, responsible for channelling petitions to the most appropriate communications procedure(s) and following up on each and every case. To make this possible, the UN will need to leverage the power of modern information technology.

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