Towards a new accountability? From COIs to Magnitsky laws

One of the key mandates and powers of the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms (e.g. country Special Rapporteurs and Commissions of Inquiry – COIs) is to secure accountability for serious human rights violations, including gross and systematic violations. But has it been able to fulfil this role since its establishment in 2006? In part, the answer to this question depends on our definition of ‘accountability.’ Do we mean accountability to the truth (i.e. fact finding) or accountability to the law (i.e. justice)? In 2017-2018, growing concern over whether COIs and Special Procedures are, on their own, capable of delivering accountability to the law, led Liechtenstein and others (at the GA) to develop a new type of mechanism: an international, impartial independent mechanism (IIIM) to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under international law in Syria. In 2018, the Human Rights Council set up a similar mechanism for Myanmar. Over the same period, an expanding group of countries, led by the US, Canada, and now the EU, have established and applied so-called ‘Magnitsky laws,’ to individually sanction the perpetrators of serious human rights violations and corruption. Both IIIMs and Magnitsky laws represent an important shift from mechanisms that emphasise accountability to the truth to mechanisms that emphasise accountability to the law, and a concurrent shift from State to individual accountability.

The project will aim to bring greater clarity and objective scrutiny to a question long neglected by States, NGOs and UN officials at the UN (it has been neglected, in most part, because key stakeholders are nervous of the answer). In short, that question is this: are existing UN mechanisms set up to secure accountability for serious human rights violations able to fulfil this crucial task; and, if not, what is the international community going to do about it? Building on this analysis, the project will provide recommendations to States about how to strengthen existing human rights accountability structures, as well as ideas for new international approaches based on individual accountability – inspired by national Magnitsky laws.

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