Monday, July 6, 2015
by Risa E. Kaufman, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute
How can U.S. advocates more effectively work with U.N. human rights experts? A new report by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute offers recommendations based on interviews with international and domestic human rights advocates, U.N. “special procedures,” and current and former U.S. government officials.
Social justice advocates in the United States are increasingly engaging with the human rights mechanisms of the United Nations to advance their domestic work. And the U.N. special procedures have emerged as a versatile and fruitful avenue for this advocacy. Recent advocacy around the right to water in Detroit exemplifies how U.S. advocates engage with U.N. special procedures to mobilize grassroots communities, raise public awareness, exert international pressure, and engage with local, state, and national government officials around local human rights concerns.
The U.N. special procedures are independent human rights experts appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council to monitor human rights around the world, report on violations, and recommend strategies for governments and other stakeholders to improve human rights conditions within countries. They draw upon and develop international human rights standards in their analyses. Although country visits by special procedures require consent of the countries concerned, special procedures can explore a situation in a country regardless of a State’s treaty ratification practice. This is particularly useful for U.S. advocates, given the United States’ poor track record on human rights treaty ratification.
U.S. advocates have become sophisticated in how they approach the mechanism and how they leverage their interactions to further social justice advocacy at home. The Human Rights Institute report, Engaging U.N. Special Procedures to Advance Human Rights at Home: A Guide for U.S. Advocates, is based on more than 40 interviews conducted by Columbia Law School graduates Sara Kayyali ’14, Nawal Maalouf ’15, Paula Mendez ’14 LL.M., and Ami Shah ’15 when they were students in the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic during the 2013-14 academic year.
The student team spoke with human rights advocates, current and former U.N. special procedures mandate holders, and current and former U.S. government officials to explore ways in which U.S. advocates are making strong use of the U.N. special procedures. Intended as a practical guide for U.S. advocates seeking to engage with the U.N. special procedures, the report offers recommendations for how to increase the effectiveness of domestic advocacy efforts, including by sharing successful examples. It provides an inside perspective on both the challenges and opportunities associated with the U.N. special procedures.
The report recommends that advocates carefully map how engagement with the special procedures mechanism fits into a larger international and domestic advocacy strategy prior to reaching out to the experts. Advocates should work, too, to cultivate a strong working relationship with the mandate that goes beyond one discrete interaction or intervention. The report also suggests that advocates not confine themselves to formal methods of engagement with special procedures (communications, thematic reports, and country visits), but rather that they be creative in engaging with the experts through informal methods, as well. These include extending invitations for academic convenings and unofficial visits. And the report includes strategies for following up on and implementing the recommendations of the special procedures.
Case studies and examples in the report explore recent visits to the U.S. by the U.N. experts on violence against women, the right to adequate housing, and the right to clean water and sanitation, as well as NGO advocacy with the experts on torture, and on extrajudicial killings.
The report may come in handy as U.S. advocates prepare for the upcoming visit by the U.N. Working Group on discrimination against women in law and practice. Advocates can mine its pages, too, for suggestions on how to leverage results from previous U.S. visits by U.N. experts and develop new relationships around other emerging and pressing issues.
In the words of one expert: “The times when I have really felt that what I’ve done is worthwhile are when advocates have taken my work and run with it.”