Why a human rights think tank?

by Marc Limon, Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group Uncategorized

Geneva is one of the world’s most important political and diplomatic hubs.

Its importance is particularly pronounced in the area of human rights. It is home to the Human Rights Council, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the international human rights Treaty Bodies, the Universal Periodic Review process, and forty-nine human rights Special Procedures. There are over 170 permanent missions, representing the interests of United Nations Member States, the vast majority of which devote much of their time and energy to human rights issues. And over forty human rights non-governmental organisations and academic institutions have permanent bases in the Geneva region.

Geneva’s evolution as the world’s human rights capital has mirrored the enormous strides taken in the field of international human rights since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. From the halls of the Palais Chaillot in Paris where the Universal Declaration was adopted, through the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, to the human rights-inspired Arab Spring, the profile, importance and power of human rights has never been greater.

It is clearly of vital importance that these positive trends in human rights, and the human progress that they drive, are further strengthened in the years and decades to come. It is equally clear that Geneva, as a centre of human rights policy-making, must play a central role in that process.

It is therefore important to ask the question: is Geneva fully-equipped to play this pivotal role – are all the public policy building-blocks in place to help construct the future human rights edifice? If Geneva is viewed as a policy-making environment, is it an optimal environment and, if not, which conditions are missing?

While Geneva’s importance is beyond question, while it is undoubtedly one of the world’s preeminent diplomatic centres, and while it is possessed of many of the attributes of a major political hub, it is apparent that it lacks some of policy-making elements present in other major centres. Among the most prominent are the relatively under-developed press corps in Geneva, and the lack of a human rights-focused policy think tank.

Think tanks play a crucial role in established political hubs. According to the 2010 Global Go-To Think Tank Rankings, there are more than 6,300 think tanks in the world, based in 169 countries. The US alone is home to 1,815, with 373 in Washington D.C.

Although there are myriad types of institution which can be broadly placed under the heading “think tank”, they all tend to play a number of vital roles not undertaken by other stakeholder groups such as States, NGOs and the media. These include:

Independent, impartial and policy-relevant research.

A platform for all stakeholder groups to come together to debate policy in an informal setting, and to establish networks.

A source of fresh thinking, advice and recommendations for policy-makers.

Geneva does possess extremely reputable institutions which play some of these roles. But not one that can be described as a dedicated think tank in the mould of, say, Chatham House in London, the European Policy Centre in Brussels, or the Brookings Institute in Washington. And certainly not one focused on human rights policy.

There can be no doubt, therefore, that a gap exists in Geneva for a dedicated, highly-visible and policy-relevant think tank focused on international human rights policy. (Indeed, the gap may also extend beyond Geneva – for while there are many think tanks around the world that address, inter alia, human rights issues, there appear to be very few, if any, that identify human rights policy as their main focus of work).

This missing piece of the jigsaw is highly detrimental to the global human rights policy environment and to policy-making in Geneva, in capitals and elsewhere.

The Universal Rights Group was established to fill this gap.



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