[page-number of print ed.: 12 ]


The rights enumerated in the UDHR are inherent to individuals within all nations, societies and cultures. Universal ends are implemented through diverse means, however, as described above by representatives of governments and below by representatives of United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations. Since the UDHR became the first international agreement to refer directly to individuals, bypassing their governments, the importance of national and international civil society in decision making has grown at an extraordinary rate. Involvement of civil society organizationts has become a crucial component of the effort to ensure that individuals fully enjoy their rights as human beings. United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations work all over the world to hold governments accountable to their human rights commitments and to empower individuals to do the same. Human rights principles, with the individual at their core, are promoted by international actors through a variety of techniques — including education, technical assistance, and field programs — all of which must be participatory, empowering and knowledge-based if they are to foster human rights communities within target countries.

Human Rights Education

Human rights education functions to enable individuals to recognize the universal rights they posses naturally and by virtue of positive law. Knowing their rights, in turn, empowers individuals to demand of their governments that they be respected. For human rights education to succeed, however, it must resonate with each individual in the context of his or her society. One international non-governmental organization, the Sisterhood is Global Institute (SIGI), has developed a human rights education model which bridges the expanse between local realities and universal norms, and between indigenous cultures and global information. The grassroots component of the model utilizes the ideas, traditions, myths and religious precepts of the communities with which the organization works in a dialogical fashion with participants. Identity formation and leadership capability is enhanced as participants arrive at an understanding of their basic rights by discussing their economic, social, cultural and political situations in familiar terms with others who share similar experiences. Although it educates using the principles of human rights and religion, SIGI neither teaches nor theologizes, but rather encourages women to claim their own inherent rights and re-appropriate their own religions.

SIGI's empowerment through self-knowledge model is coupled with an empowerment through global partnership and knowledge model. As the

[page-number of print ed.: 13 ]

information revolution transforms human society with increasing speed, the voices of those left out of the technological loop will grow fainter and fainter, and those left out of the knowledge loop will fall further and further behind. In an effort to ensure that the perspectives of women from the Global South are heard in international dialogues, SIGI helps facilitate communication between and among women of the Global South and North. Bridging the awareness gap between communities helps individuals recognize their commonalties, appreciate their diversity, and understand that human rights are universal norms. Interaction also enables women to share their knowledge with others and to create new knowledge dynamically. To give women access to knowledge and to one another, SIGI plans to: provide training for and access to the Internet; produce an international who's who of women that pays particular attention to women activists and leaders who's work has not been widely recognized; and establish a data bank on theory and practice of women's human rights, among other activities. SIGI hopes to give women a stake in the information revolution and foster leadership skills through its knowledge partnership model.

Given that to enjoy human rights is to be empowered and that power is enjoyed in relation to others, human rights are enjoyed only in participatory relations with others, according to SIGI. The organization's approach to human rights education demonstrates that power can be exercised in relation to others in a cooperative, horizontal fashion, not just in a competitive, hierarchical fashion. Today, empowering new opportunities for cooperation and knowledge transference between and among individuals, non-governmental organizations, governments and intergovernmental organizations are accompanying rapid advances in information technology and technical knowledge.

Technical assistance for human rights

One such opportunity for partnership came in 1995 with the creation of the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) in the Department of Rehabilitation and Social Sustainability. This autonomous, self-financing United Nations entity engages in project management and implementation for clients which include the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP), the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), the United Nations Department of Political Affairs (DPA), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR). The work of UNOPS exemplifies the type of cross-sectoral cooperation within the United Nations system called for by the Secretary General as one of the key elements of UN reform to foster human rights. Since an agreement between UNOPS and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human

[page-number of print ed.: 14 ]

Rights (OHCHR) went into effect in July of 1998, UNOPS has been involved in six human rights field operations in nine countries and a number of Geneva-based operations. Working together and learning from one another, UNOPS and UNHCHR teams are attempting to merge the seemingly disparate cultures of human rights and management in hopes of making the OHCHR responsive, cost-effective, and efficient. UNOPS predicts that the result will be an implementation rate of at least 90% for the joint UNOP-UNHCHR projects, valued together at more than $6 million for 1998.

UNOPS operates on the premise that skillful management can help make human rights operations more effective and that a human rights-based approach can make technical assistance more effective. Dynamic partnerships formed between UNOPS [and its predecessor the Office of Project Services (OPS)] and other UN agencies have integrated human rights into development, reintegration and peace consolidation projects for war affected countries with great success. For example, the multifaceted Development Programme for Displaced Persons, Refugees and Returnees in Central America (PRODERE), a UNDP program financed by the Government of Italy, and implemented by OPS with the participation of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), UNHCR and the Inter-American Institute for Human Rights (IIDH), was credited in an independent evaluation with having significantly changed attitudes in host countries about human rights. At the request of the UN’s Department of Political Affairs (DPA), UNOPS is currently implementing the activities of the Guatemalan Clarification Commission called for in the 1996 Peace Accords. Mandated to examine 36 years of human rights violations in 12 months, the commission's credibility and positive impact on the peace process depends on a well-functioning apparatus. The work of UNOPS illustrates the ability of well-managed international partnerships to foster human rights consciousness and build human rights communities within UN member states.

Human rights field activities

Along with improving its own efficiency and capability, one of the highest priorities of OHCHR in accordance with the wishes of the Secretary-General is integrating, or "mainstreaming", human rights throughout the entire UN system. The 50th anniversary of the UDHR inspired many UN departments, agencies and inter-governmental bodies to emphasize the importance of human rights to their work, but it remains to be seen whether proclamations made for the occasion will translate into lasting policy or become passing rhetoric. In practice, mainstreaming of human rights remains an elusive goal in many areas of the UN's work. Considerable progress has, however, been made within agencies working along the humanitarian relief to development continuum, as they increasingly recognize that today's internal conflicts, and the complex humanitarian crises they produce, are

[page-number of print ed.: 15 ]

human rights matters. For example, with the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) vastly outpacing the number of refugees, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) currently finds itself engaged in an effort to implement guidelines for IDP protection. Thus, the stark dichotomy once thought to exist between assistance and protection, that found expression in the phrase "the well-feed dead", is breaking down.

The tension between proponents emphasizing either peace or justice as the focus of development work, which in the past often resulted in human rights being assigned a back seat to security and political expediency, is also breaking down within certain parts of the UN. As described above, human rights were one of the key components of the Dayton Peace Accords for Bosnia. DPA, the lead UN agency for post-conflict peace building, and UNDP, the lead UN agency for development assistance, are finally recognizing that human rights is a crucial component of both sustainable peace and sustainable development. Yet, twenty years after Amartya Sen first pointed to the link between famines and freedom of expression, the UN is still working on ways to operationalize cooperative, integrated, human rights-based approaches to conflict resolution and development. A „strategic framework" is being devised to coordinate the activities of departments and agencies involved in emergency relief and conflict resolution, the principles of which were first applied to the UN’s work in Afghanistan and may soon be applied to efforts in Sierra Leone. A UN Development Assistance Framework has reached a more advanced stage of development and its principles are being applied around the world; although, a systematic evaluation of its effectiveness has yet to be conducted. Moreover, in late 1997 UNDP adopted a new policy reflected in its publication Integrating Human Rights into Sustainable Human Development and concluded, in March 1998, a Memorandum of Understanding with the HCHR to cooperate for the implementation of that policy.

To be truly rights-based and empowering for the agencies involved, the UN's new partnering arrangements must utilize dynamic problem-solving techniques, be based on comparative advantage, and facilitate knowledge sharing or reciprocal learning. Their success also depends on whether they are able to foster partnerships with civil society inside target countries. As civil society flourishes, freedom of expression and association flourish, and citizens expect more participation in the determination of policy and accountability from their governments. Finally, the success of the partnerships will rely upon their ability to have a direct impact on the lives of individuals, the real targets of a human rights-based approach. So far, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), has been one of the most successful UN agencies at conducting rights-based programming that directly touches lives. Treating health as a human right rather than as a need, for example, UNICEF no longer congratulates itself upon the vaccination of 80% of a country's children. Rather, it asks why it was unable to vaccinate the other 20%

[page-number of print ed.: 16 ]

— was it discrimination, lack of education, rural isolation — and attempts to overcome the problem. Although the implementation rates of few other human rights programs are as easily evaluated, the experience of UNICEF demonstrates why adopting a rights-based approach, which values every individual equally, can encourage international organizations and agencies to become more efficient, effective and cooperative.

Conclusion: Do UN agencies and international NGOs make a difference?

UN agencies and NGOs like those described above have been instrumental in spreading the discourse of human rights around the world. Although they still have a long way to go, many UN agencies are adopting more rights-based approaches to programming to encourage citizen participation and government accountability in receiving countries. By contrast, the UN Security Council has been less open to systematic incorporation of human rights concerns into its deliberations, and is often criticized for not adequately representing the full range of member states’ interests. The Security Council has never been briefed by the HCHR, is rarely briefed by Special Rapporteurs of the Commission on Human Rights, and is not accountable to the rest of the organization.

It should be noted that "civil society" has become a catch-all phrase, and should not obscure the significant differences between community-based human rights organizations and international human rights organizations. Local non-governmental organizations, which have better access to the grassroots than their international counterparts, deserve much of the credit for opening up political space in member countries for recent improvements in human rights. International non-governmental organizations, which have better access to the international stage than their local counterparts, have had considerable success in recent years in putting important new human rights issues on the agenda of the United Nations. Partnerships between grassroots and international organizations provide crucial links between local realities and universal aspirations, but it is also crucial that local NGOs, particularly those from the Global South, gain greater access to the United Nations system. The matter of NGO access has been an issue for some time and is currently before the General Assembly on the basis of a report by the Secretary General.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | März 2001

Previous Page TOC Next Page