Boosting the financial transparency of UN Special Procedures

by Gregor Puppinck, Director of the European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ) Blog, Blog, By invitation, International human rights institutions, mechanisms and processes

I was very surprised, roughly a year ago, to find out that several UN Special Procedures mandate-holders (independent UN human rights experts), were receiving substantial financial contributions from governments, and even from private foundations, and that many of those contributions are made without any kind of formal financial oversight or transparency. I therefore decided to look further into this issue, having already published a report (February 2020) on similar concerns in the European human rights system (‘NGOs and the Judges of the ECHR, 2009 – 2019’).

We started the research by analysing the financial declarations published annually between 2015 and 2019 by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Special Procedures mandate-holders, as well as by the main foundations funding the system (download our Excel file here). To complete this analysis, 28 mandate-holders in office between 2010 and 2020 accepted to be interviewed. However, aware of the sensitive nature of the subject, most of them asked for their comments not be attributed. We also interviewed. Beatriz Balbin, head of the Special Procedures section at the OHCHR, as well as with Marc Limon and Ted Piccone, (authors of the landmark study ‘Human Rights Special Procedures: Determinants of Influence’ (2014)).

After a year of research, we recently published our final report on ‘The Financing of UN Experts in the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council.’

The report reaches several important conclusions. First, it highlights the acute financial insecurity of the Special Procedures system. Between 2015 and 2019, 40% of the Special Procedures’ budget came from additional, extra-budgetary funding from a few States, NGOs, and private foundations. Indeed, while the regular budget of the Special Procedures amounts to nearly $68 million, almost $20 million more was voluntarily paid into the mechanism (i.e., voluntary contributions), mainly by the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States. Moreover, during the same period, a few States also gave an additional $14,6 million to a selection of 51 of the 121 experts in office (also through OHCHR). Moreover, 37 of the 121 experts also reported having directly received (i.e., without the involvement of OHCHR) 134 direct financial payments – outside of the UN system, amounting to almost $11 million. The main providers of such direct payments are the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundations.

Weak regulation

Between 2007 and 2015, some efforts were made to strengthen the financial transparency of the Special Procedures system. The Code of Conduct of Special Procedures (2007) forbids UN experts from accepting any ‘gift or remuneration from any government or non-governmental source for activities carried out in pursuit of his/her mandate,’ while a 2011 Human Rights Council resolution underscored ‘the need for full transparency in the funding of the special procedures’ (A/HRC/RES/16/21). Furthermore, in 2011, the UN Board of Auditors expressed its concern about the existence of agreements between mandate-holders and funders (2011 report). Eventually, in 2015, mandate-holders ‘decided to rend disclosure of external funding received mandatory and make it publicly available through modalities to be specified further,’ (A/HRC/31/39). However, in practice, such a declaration is not compulsory, nor subjected to any control by UN administrators. Nor are direct payments reflected in the financial reports of OHCHR. Indeed, it appears that they are only declared by beneficiaries on a voluntary basis, and are sometimes published in the annexes of the Special Procedures’ annual report.

Inconsistent financial declarations

We discovered at least 29 occasions when mandate-holders failed to declare direct financial contributions or made such declarations in an inconsistent manner. Between 2015 and 2019, we uncovered 18 separate direct financial contributions to mandate-holders that were not declared, and that were declared as coming from ‘anonymous’ sources. On other occasions, as noted, the declarations were imprecise. We found 143 financial contributions that did not have a declared purpose. Moreover, there are many discrepancies between the amounts declared as given by the foundations, and the ones declared to the UN as having been received by the independent experts. Some contributions, declared by the foundations on their websites, were not declared at all by experts.

The report also finds that the system relies on a large number of ‘in-kind donations’ from private actors, often consisting in the provision of staff and office space. 36 of the 121 experts surveyed reported having received 125 ‘in-kind donations’ between 2015 and 2019. These in-kind donations are not assessed but can be substantial.

Serious questions about the independence and functioning of Special Procedures

None of the above is to criticise Special Procedures mandate-holders, who conduct their work for free and are generally provided with insufficient resources by the UN to fulfil what have become, over time, increasingly demanding mandates and tasks. Nor is it to criticise State or private donors, who make their contributions as a way of supporting the UN’s important (and critically underfunded) human rights work. Rather, our findings point to serious failings of transparency and, thus, public accountability.

Contributions from foundations, for example, are generally subject to a written agreement between the donor and the recipient. Such grant agreement can be very precise, particularly when they are established with a foundation. However, they are neither published by, nor even notified to, OHCHR.

As explained in the report, extrabudgetary contributions – especially direct contributions – can affect – or at least call into question – the independence of the expert, because they may create dependence and thus influence their agenda. The degree of dependence naturally varies according to the importance and regularity of the funding received – which in some cases may be small (say, $5,000) but in other cases may amount to around a million US dollars (from a single donor).

Most of the experts we interviewed did recognise that direct payments risk influencing their work and agenda. Vernor Muñoz, for example, recognised that ‘this is the most difficult implication of having resources from external sources – [the contributors may] require you to follow certain agendas or [pursue] certain interests.’ Another expert, Gabor Rona, explained that individual States’ financial contributions to individual mandates ‘are valuable and necessary to the health of the Special Procedures system, but they [can] create the appearance, if not the fact, of undue influence.’ Richard Falk went further, declaring that direct funding ‘can have a corrupting effect.’

The extra-budgetary funding of the UN experts also causes serious inequalities between mandates, as those who do not receive such support must compensate through their own work – giving even more generously of their time. Our report finds that this inequality is increasing. Between 2015 and 2019, payments selectively allocated to a few experts – and not to the system as a whole – more than doubled.

UN experts on the payroll

Although UN independent experts are required to work pro bono, and to avoid conflicts of interest, several of them are paid or even hired by institutions with a specific agenda related to their mandate. For example, in 2017, Melissa Upreti, Chair of the Working Group on ending discrimination against women, was recruited as a Senior Director in charge of global advocacy by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership , an organisation doing ‘United Nations monitoring and advocacy.’ This means that the mandate-holder was in a position to influence her colleagues at the UN. In another example, in 2017, the Ford Foundation paid $100,000 ‘to the NGO that [another] Special Rapporteur works for [and] that provides her the release time to work on the mandate.’

Recommendations From the foregoing, it is clearly of critical importance to urgently put in place clear financial and ethical rules for Special Procedures, and above all, to provide sufficient institutional, transparent, and neutral support and funding to the mechanism within the institutional framework of the UN.   More precisely, it appears reasonable to recommend the following:

  • OHCHR should be required to report annually to mandate-holders and States, on its budget allocations to each Special Procedures mandate;
  • Any extra-budgetary funding for the Special Procedures must be paid directly to OHCHR, and not to the mandate-holders themselves or to any external institution;
  • All Special Procedures should publish funding agreements;
  • All Special Procedures should declare, in their reports to the Human Rights Council, any extra-budgetary support that was provided for the report’s production;
  • To even up the system, and make it more accessible to individuals from poorer countries and from diverse backgrounds, mandate-holders should receive some limited remuneration to cover time spent on the mandate.

The European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ) is an NGO, based in Strasbourg, working mainly with the international human rights system, and on the issue of corruption and conflicts of interests within it.


Featured image: Human Rights Council – 14th Session. 15 June 2010. UN Photo / Jess Hoffman. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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