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29 October 2019
"The UN and Human Rights in 2019" Event Coverage
By Micayla Costa, Human Rights Committee Member, and A. Edward Elmendorf, UNA-NCA Past President

United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Andrew Gilmour and former Ambassadors Sarah Mendelson and Keith Harper focused on the many human rights challenges facing the UN, at a UNA-NCA UN Month forum on Capitol Hill, on October 28th.  Gilmour, the New York Representative for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, placed current problems in a historical context, including the horrors of civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and the Rwandan genocide. Citing differences of perspective among UN Security Council members, including the P5 (comprised of China, France, Russia, the United
Kingdom, and the United States), on the extent to which the Council should engage on human rights issues associated with international security problems, P1010772Gilmour called for an expansive view, as opposed to that of China and Russia.  In terms of other Security Council reforms, Gilmour mentioned changes in composition, and modifications of the use of the veto. With indirect reference to the dialogue in the United States about its overseas engagement, Gilmour said that the UN is engaged in nation-building. He expressed his concern regarding human rights violations in many areas of the world, and called for the protection of people, who bring human rights grievances to the UN, from reprisals by their home governments. 

Serving as discussants prior to open questions and answers, Mendelson, former U.S. Representative to the UN Economic and Social Council, and Harper, former U.S. Representative to the UN Human Rights Council, agreed on the current backlash against human rights. They saw an important absence of global leadership for the protection of human rights, lamenting the current absence of the U.S. from the UN Human Rights Council. They called for the U.S. to re-engage as a member of the Council and to provide new leadership on human rights issues in the Council and beyond. They argued that full deployment of U.S. diplomatic capacities in capitals around the world might, for example, have assured the election of Costa Rica over Venezuela in the recent UN General Assembly election of members of the Council.  The importance of a Council comprised of human rights advocates, with minimal numbers of spoiler states which may discourage action by the Council regarding abuses, was underscored. Harper stressed the importance of UN work to support human rights defenders.

P1010762Gilmour said that the UN’s human rights agenda has evolved considerably over the decades.  For many years, it had been determined solely from the perspective of leading world powers.  More and more, the agenda has become widely global, yet inclusive, as reflected in the universality of the UN’s Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While Gilmour emphasized that the SDGs are only goals and not rights, Mendelson said that the Goals should be seen as a hopeful development, stressing the SDGs’ ability to mobilize young people.      

During the discussion, the speakers stressed the significance of protecting current human rights standards and institutions against backlash attacks from authoritarians and others abroad and at home. Civil society organizations, whose work is at the core of international protection of human rights, face increasing threats, both on a personal level, as well as through regulatory changes which reduce civic space, and limit NGO fundraising. Concerns were expressed about potential threats to the international protection of human rights that could arise from the “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” recently created by Secretary of State Pompeo. 

The speakers stressed the complicated position of ethnic conflicts in regards to human rights, as these cases can often be posed as security concerns, rather than as human rights issues. Considering these situations as ones which concern human rights may expedite their being addressed, before they can evolve into even more difficult issues of international peace and security. 

The uncertainty of the international environment is a critical factor in the realm of human rights.  For example, the unexpected fall of the Soviet Union spawned P1010777a massive expansion of human rights reform in former Soviet republics, and created an international environment which facilitated the establishment of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Similarly, LGBTQ issues lacked significant international attention prior to the last decades. This situation has steadily improved, however, and in 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Council established an Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI).  The Independent Expert, a distinguished Costa Rican lawyer, has visited and reported on country performance on LGBTQ matters, and addressed the UN General Assembly’s Committee on Human Rights and Social Issues on UN Day 2019. 

Gilmour observed that UN human rights failures, in part due to their prominence in the public eye, are much easier to identify than human rights successes. Still, Gilmour, Harper, and Mendelson were certain to make note of key human rights successes throughout their discussion, including the UN-mobilized support for the reforms now under way in Sudan, and for the actions of UN peacekeepers in South Sudan in protecting civilian populations.

The event concluded with a full house of attendees, who engaged in informal discussions and networking after the distinguished speakers concluded. This type of continued dialogue and collaborative learning is encouraged under the auspices of the UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee, where new members are welcome, and where multiple advocacy opportunities are currently available.