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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On Human Rights, Send in Experts

This post was co-authored with Emily Alinikoff.

What can the United States effectively do when it comes to promoting human rights? How can it best work through the United Nations to make a difference for victims in Afghanistan, Iran or Cambodia?

These questions are very much on the minds of Obama administration officials. When the administration decided to join the UN's Human Rights Council despite skepticism and outright hostility from the Council's conservative critics, the administration promised to work from within to promote reform, increase attention on the most serious human rights crises and reduce political bias against Israel.

There are signs the strategy is starting to work. Thanks to an energetic if quiet campaign to build cross-regional coalitions, U.S. diplomats have managed to extend the Council's scrutiny of human rights violations in Sudan, Somalia and Cambodia, secure new fact-finding mandates on freedom of association and women's rights, protect the independence of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, and deny Iran a seat on the Council. On Israel, however, it remains largely alone in opposing resolutions censuring the government for its attacks in Gaza and the humanitarian aid flotilla, in opposing resolutions critical of the government's action in Palestine, and in trying to remedy the imbalanced attention it receives.

After 18 months of extensive research into the work of the Human Rights Council, we have found that the U.S. strategy to invest in the Council's independent experts is a sound one. These volunteers are chosen by governments for their professional expertise to investigate human-rights situations around the world, make recommendations for corrective action and report to the world on their findings. In operation since the late 1970s, they have been called "the crown jewel" of the U.N. human rights system. Yet no one had put that proposition to the test of independent and rigorous examination.

After our own examination of how governments respond to the thousands of communications and dozens of field missions carried out by these independent UN experts, we found convincing evidence that they serve as catalysts for rights, prompting governments to reexamine and correct actions that violated human rights across a broad range of categories. By shedding light on issues like the fate of the disappeared, mistreatment of political prisoners, fair access to health services and violence against women, these monitors tackle the hard issues and elevate them to the highest levels of political power. That alone has an impact in creating a public record about abuses that some would like to hide, increasing pressure for remedies, and perhaps most importantly giving a voice to victims.

Some governments respond to this pressure through legislative reforms or executive action, and often in ways that directly benefit the victims. In Cambodia, the UN's monitor intervened to obtain better treatment and ultimately freedom for a journalist accused of defamation. In Afghanistan, the UN expert persuaded authorities to release hundreds of illegally detained prisoners. In Georgia, Indonesia, Spain and Colombia, U.N. experts uncovered unacceptable conditions for the displaced, abused women, prisoners and innocent civilians and influenced governments to take action.

We also found that too many governments ignore or deny the experts' allegations or block efforts to gain access to the country or to victims. State cooperation was particularly bad when it came to responding to an expert's written allegations of violations, with more than 50 percent of communications receiving no reply versus 18 percent that generated some positive movement toward a remedy. Yet even when they are denied country visits, like in the case of North Korea or Burma, these UN experts help amplify the voices of a beleaguered community of human rights defenders, mobilize advocacy and publicize first-hand testimony of victims.

The lack of state cooperation, however, is not the only challenge the independent experts face. A serious lack of resources, inadequate professional staff, insufficient training in the political and diplomatic skills needed to prompt officials to take action, and the absence of any systematic process for following up their recommendations stands out as the main weaknesses. With additional resources and political will, these are solvable problems. Fortunately, the five-year review of the Council, which just got underway at the end of October in Geneva, offers a good opportunity to address them.

In the meantime, given the generally positive track record of the UN's independent experts, the United States should continue to lead efforts to create and fund new mandates. Later this fall, the UN will take up resolutions on Iran and Burma, opening the door for appointing independent experts and commissions of inquiry to deal with the longstanding and deteriorating human rights situations in these countries. For the sake of victims there and around the world, the international community should send in the experts.

Ted Piccone is Senior Fellow and Deputy Director for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Emily Alinikoff is a Senior Research Assistant in Foreign Policy at Brookings. The authors have recently released the report, "Catalysts for Rights: The Unique Contribution of the UN's Independent Experts on Human Rights."
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Cambodia's poverty crisis

Rapid urban development in Cambodia has resulted in changes in Phnom Penh with Cambodians missing out on the economic growth, 13 years since the end of civil conflict.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speakers: Pou Sothirak. former Cambodian Industry minister and ambassador to Japan and senior visiting research fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studieg.

SOTHIRAK: The issues of poverty in Cambodia has been a very serious one and before Cambodia was thrown into war conflicts, but after that we have peace, but as the country emerged, there is a lot of problem concerning how to improve the livelihood of the people. The government have been working very hard. There has been good economic progress in the mid 2005, 2006, 2007, double digit growth, but unfortunately, this growth is narrow based and it did not trigger down to the base.

LAM: Is the government to your mind, is it conscious of the importance of letting it trickle down, spreading the wealth a little bit?

SOTHIRAK: The government is I think conscious, however, at this stage of development, Cambodia mainly rely on export, particularly government. Definitely there are some improvement in term of getting employment, but basically the poor does not live in the city. They live in the rural area and 90 per cent of them are based on farming.

LAM: Well, you mentioned the garment factories and the garment factories, of course, have been closing due to a slump in demand, particularly from the United States. Have the poor in Cambodia been hard hit by the two years of economic crisis, the world economic crisis?

SOTHIRAK: Oh definitely. Cambodian has been affected by the global downturn, particularly when America stopped buying. There is a lot of lay off. And this is again an economic policy that rely on export solely to be sustainable, and therefore the livelihood of the people at large are not protected.

LAM: Well, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party was returned to government in the 2008 elections, largely with the support of the poor I might add to win outright majority after years of political bickering and uncertainties in parliament. Do you think the poor has benefited from the two years of total CPP government rule?

SOTHIRAK: At the moment, the government has been doing a lot of infrastructure work at the village level, building roads and water reservoirs and digging wells as well as building school and rural people have seen this work with the government and I think that's in large part this is how the CPP is still very top choice for the people. They see this infrastructure work.

LAM: So the people, actually the poor in Cambodia, they do see the Cambodian Communist Party as the way out of their poverty?

SOTHIRAK: It's the Cambodian People's Party, not the Cambodian Communist Party.

LAM: Yes, that's right. I beg your pardon. Yes, the CPP ? .

SOTHIRAK: Yeah, they have seen the Cambodian People's Party under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen have been working for them to solve some of the critical problem, particularly rural connection between cities and rural area.

LAM: It's well documented that corruption has been a major issue in Cambodia. To your mind, is the government doing enough to address this?

SOTHIRAK: Oh corruption is a very peculiar and very difficult issues. Yes, Cambodia is still seen widespread corruption, and this is due in part because of the low salary of the civil servants and therefore many public services such as health care or education has been hard hit because of this low salary. And I think the government have already been establishing. There is a law, anti-corruption law and now there is a unit, that there is an agency that deal with anti-corruption established and there is a no shortage of political will to try to combat corruption, but corruption itself is already widespread and its deep rooted and I think to solve these corruption issues, first of all, government need to pay a lot of attention to good governance, meaning ensuring the judicial system is working to protect everybody and equally in front in the name of the law.

LAM: In otherwords, a strong and professional independent judiciary?

SOTHIRAK: Exactly. Secondly, the civil servants. The civil servant need to be pay more and at the same time, they have to have some kind of check and balance, so that if there is a corrupt case, these individuals, they will put into, will be punished accordingly.

LAM: Well, it's been said that Cambodia is still a long way from meeting the UN's Millennium Development Goals and of course one of those goals is eradicating poverty and one way of doing that is, of course, providing education. I understand that half the children in primary school in Cambodia don't finish their education. Is something being done to address that?

SOTHIRAK: Yeah, that is very clear that one of the major difficulty to eradicate education, to eradicate poverty is to try to bring up the level of education and at the moment, there are in the rural area a lot of drop out rate and they don't have enough school and also because of the teacher with low salary, the teacher sometimes teach only half day. So these are the major problem that the government need to address.
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