Why a human rights think tank?

The need for independent thinking and ideas on human rights could not be greater.

The Human Rights Council is 12 years old and faces enormous challenges if it is to successfully and effectively implement its mandate. After an uncertain start, the Council is generally seen (at least among delegates accredited to it) to have strengthened its performance over recent years. Yet belief in this qualitative improvement is largely based on anecdotal evidence and on the proactive role of the Council in responding to important human rights crises such as those in Libya and Syria. There is a distinct lack of empirical research that might prove (or disprove) the perception, held by Geneva-based decision makers, that the Council is gradually beginning to deliver on its mandate. The lack of such evidence-based research probably explains the disconnect between perceptions of the Council inside and outside of Geneva, and the skepticism which often greets the work of the body among non-Geneva policy-makers and policy-shapers.

The relative lack of independent and widely accessible policy analysis and advice also impacts negatively on the effectiveness of the Council’s mechanisms, including treaty bodies and Special Procedures; on other United Nations bodies, programmes and processes which have an important bearing on human rights including, inter alia, the General Assembly’s Third Committee, the Security Council, the United Nations Secretariat, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations Development Programme; and on regional and national human rights mechanisms.

And finally, the gap exacerbates the already existing disconnect between policy-making at international level and its implementation at regional, national and local levels.

At the same time, the power of human rights as a universal language and set of values has never been greater. Linked with this, crucial human rights-centric issues and questions have become enormously important. Some of the most significant of these have been evident over the past few years in the context of the Arab Spring – in particular the interlinked issues of human rights, democratic transition, accountability, justice, religion and the spread of information technology. These, and related ‘big-picture’ questions of universality, diversity and cultural relativism; the complexity, resource-intensiveness and effectiveness of monitoring and enforcement mechanisms; and the politicisation of human rights arguments, are both sensitive and complex. Human rights policy-makers and other stakeholders at all levels need to be able to identify, understand and formulate responses to such issues.

With all this in mind, there is a clear need for an institution that is independent and broadly credible – not an activist organisation, but rather an institution that would carry out independent and scientifically-sound policy research and analysis and deliver politically-practicable policy options on human rights issues. That research must command the respect of all parts of the human rights community in all regions of the world, and command the attention of the key decision makers in both the public and private sectors, in Geneva, in New York, in regional and national capitals and elsewhere.