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Human Rights Review

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Follow-up to the World Conference on Human Rights, New York 1998

XII. Implementation of human rights

86. Making human rights a reality was the overarching idea that guided the World Conference on Human Rights. The generally shared view during the World Conference was that since the major goals in the area of standard-setting had already been achieved, the international community should give increased priority to the implementation of existing standards. The World Conference stated clearly that the protection and promotion of human rights is the first responsibility of Governments. International action can offer important and sometimes necessary support to efforts by Governments and societies but cannot replace them.

87. The "post-Vienna" period does not offer a consistent picture with regard to the implementation of human rights. Resolutions of the Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly, reports of special rapporteurs and working groups, as well as comments by the treaty-based bodies, provide evidence of positive developments in many countries. The globally observed trend towards democracy has also benefited the areas of human rights and development. The end of dictatorial regimes in South Africa and Haiti, and the transformation in Central and Eastern Europe are only some notable examples of this process. The fact that this crucial change has been guided and supported largely by international human rights standards gives the international community good reason for satisfaction. It is most encouraging to see how these standards empower people in struggling for democracy, and, after achieving it, in building a democratic society.

88. The five-year review reports submitted by Governments, as well as information from other sources (e.g., State reports to treaty bodies) illustrate that in many countries, an intensive process of legislative change has taken place to ensure the consistency of national law with international standards. Many constitutions and ordinary laws of countries in transition to democracy include direct and indirect references to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to international human rights law in general, and also recognize the supremacy of international human rights treaties over domestic regulations. Moreover, national courts increasingly refer to international standards in order to evaluate the validity of national law and practice. Several reports refer to the establishment of human rights institutions and affirmative policies to better promote and protect human rights. References to decisions liberating people from places of detention, abolishing the death penalty or extending pardon for death sentences, reforms of the administration of justice and strengthening of procedures offering the individual concerned the means to claim his or her rights, among others, are also very encouraging. In these processes, which connect human rights, governance and rule of law issues, assistance from the United Nations system is of paramount importance.

89. However, this optimistic picture is distorted by national laws remaining in force, or even newly adopted, that are inconsistent with the letter or spirit of international human rights obligations, such as laws that discriminate against women or interfere with fundamental freedoms (e.g., freedom of opinion, freedom of association, freedom of religion); laws that do not recognize economic, social and cultural rights; and laws that do not adequately protect individuals in penal proceedings. Unfortunately, such laws are not uncommon. This is particularly disturbing since laws are expressions of political will, and their adoption cannot be explained simply by the negligence or abuse of State officials.

90. The international community is confronted daily with news of grave human rights violations affecting large numbers of people worldwide. The General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights, treaty bodies and special procedures all regularly deal with (a) obstacles to the enjoyment of all human rights by all, (b) serious human rights violations and (c) difficult human rights situations in a relatively large number of countries. The present report also refers to several thematic issues requiring resolution. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in her dialogue with Governments, follows up on the recommendations of the human rights machinery with a view to securing respect for all human rights. It is of paramount importance that determined action be undertaken at the national level to carefully consider and implement these recommendations.

91. Every year, thousands of letters and communications are addressed by individuals and non-governmental organizations to the Secretary-General, the General Assembly, the Commission on Human Rights and other United Nations organs, alleging human rights violations and seeking United Nations intercession on behalf of alleged victims (see figure VII). A considerable part of these are examined through a procedure involving the Commission on Human Rights and the Subcommission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, pursuant to Economic and Social Council resolution 1503 (XLVIII), in which the Council sought to identify and respond to systematic and gross violations of human rights.

92. Human rights treaty monitoring bodies are at the centre of the United Nations system for the promotion and protection of human rights. Their impact on the law and practice of State Parties is unquestionable. Equally important in the case of communication procedures, treaty bodies are perceived by those who believe their rights have been violated as agents of international justice (see figure VIII). Treaty bodies are not static structures. On the contrary, their members have proven the ability to adapt to evolving needs. Several new functional concepts have been developed (e.g., early warning procedures, reaction to emergencies, country missions, reports ex officio in case of extreme delays in delivery of government reports, follow-up to conclusions, cooperation with United Nations agencies and programmes).

93. However, the unique expertise and wealth of information available within the treaty bodies has not been exploited fully. Since the World Conference, annual meetings of the chairpersons of these bodies have highlighted major obstacles in this context, including the increased workload (reports are frequently not scheduled for examination until two or three years after submission), as well as insufficient secretariat support and time at the disposal of the bodies. Further, the chairpersons stressed delays in reporting by Governments (some 1,000 reports overdue) and limited responsiveness from some components of the United Nations system, in particular the international financial institutions (see A/52/507). While welcoming the success of the Plan of Action for the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the growing support for a more limited Plan of Action for the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the chairpersons proposed an overall plan of action to support the work of the treaty bodies and thus help them meet the expectations of Governments and other interested parties (see A/53/125).

94. The call of the World Conference for strengthening the system of special procedures, rapporteurs, experts and working groups under mandates established by the Commission on Human Rights has been responded to by the international community (see figure IX). Decisions of the fifty-fourth session of the Commission on Human Rights concerning the establishment of three new mandates in the area of economic and social rights contributed to a better thematic balance of the system. Holders of special procedures mandates have refined their methods of work; increased the frequency of their country visits; initiated, in some cases, comprehensive comparative analytical studies; and developed procedures for handling individual complaints. Cooperation between thematic rapporteurs and country-specific rapporteurs has developed, for example through joint actions, joint urgent appeals, and in some instances joint country visits. As of 1999, the annual meetings of all special rapporteurs (launched in 1994) and the chairpersons of treaty bodies will be held simultaneously to offer the participants a better possibility for interaction.

95. It is regrettable that several country rapporteurs have not obtained the consent for visits from the Governments of those countries for which specific mandates had been established. A number of requests for country visits by thematic rapporteurs are left without reply. At the same time, the increasing number of countries that have decided to invite thematic rapporteurs has led to greater frequency of country visits. Holders of mandates have stressed repeatedly that the resources to support their activities have not kept up with the increase in mandates, and in fact have been reduced since 1993. This development has had a negative impact on the work of rapporteurs, inter alia, with regard to timely documentation.

96. It should be noted that the ongoing review of the human rights machinery includes the treaty bodies and special procedures systems and should produce comprehensive proposals for achieving greater effectiveness of their action. Meanwhile, OHCHR undertakes to ensure better conditions of work and more effective coordination in both areas within existing resources.

97. The movement of the human rights programme to the field must be cited as one of the essential changes in the human rights activities of the United Nations since the World Conference (see figure X). Today, more than 200 United Nations human rights officers are working in 22 countries around the world. The mandates for these presences come from resolutions or decisions by the United Nations organs, or are the result of agreements between the High Commissioner and the country or countries concerned. The primary purpose of field presences is to support the efforts of countries to create national capacities for the promotion and protection of human rights and the rule of law. Within this general framework, activities focus on providing technical cooperation or combine assistance with monitoring of the human rights situation. The field presences are either part of a wider United Nations presence or set up directly by OHCHR. The experience of the past five years indicates the great importance of this new form of work. It not only enhances the capacity of the United Nations human rights programme to respond adequately to the needs of Member States but also strengthens the input of OHCHR in cooperation with other United Nations partners in the field, resulting in more effective and efficient United Nations action.

98. The World Conference attached great importance to national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights. Independent and pluralistic, consistent with the "Paris Principles" concerning their status (see General Assembly resolution 48/134, annex). Such institutions uphold the rule of law and democracy and provide electoral assistance, as well as raise human rights awareness through training and education, popular participation and the involvement of civil society. During the last five years, the number of countries that have established such institutions has increased considerably. The Fourth International Workshop of National Institutions, held at Mérida, Mexico (17 to 29 November 1997), and regional meetings in Asia and the Pacific (1997) and Africa (1998) highlighted the vital role national institutions play in approaching complex human rights problems. Contributions to the five-year review by national human rights institutions also point to their ability to be effective partners at the national level, as well as within the larger human rights community, while maintaining their distinct role as independent institutions.The contributions also stress the wide-ranging input of national institutions, including impartial investigation into alleged violations, assistance to victims, advocacy through information campaigns, education, research and training, as well as monitoring government compliance with treaty commitments. OHCHR, in many cases in cooperation with UNDP and other United Nations field offices, works to catalyse and support the establishment and work of national institutions. This priority activity has produced important results since the World Conference. One can expect that strong national institutions will increasingly take over tasks that currently still require international involvement.

99. It is unquestionable that grave and large-scale human rights violations are both the source and result of conflicts that are currently predominantly of an internal nature and inflict severe damage on civilian populations. Parties resort to strategies and tactics that deliberately target women, children, the poor and the weak, which has given rise to waves of internally displaced persons and refugees. As a result, humanitarian emergencies are commonplace. The international community must commit itself to providing the tools to avert the vicious cycle: violations of human rights lead to conflict, which results in new violations, and soon. The Secretary-General has called for declaring the next century "the age of prevention". Responding to this call is an important and current task. In the vast majority of cases, this is equated with addressing human rights problems as the root causes of conflicts.

100. The human rights programme is playing an increasing role in the United Nations response to the threat of ongoing conflicts. Human rights field presences in Bosnia and Herzegovina and other countries of this region, as well as Rwanda and Burundi should be mentioned as examples of such involvement. Training for the international staff of the United Nations and OSCE operations in human rights has also been provided, inter alia, in Angola, Cambodia, Eritrea, Haiti, Mozambique, South Africa and former Yugoslavia (see E/CN.4/1995/89). In addition, human rights components are increasingly being included into peace operations of the United Nations. To analyse the modalities of this involvement, the United Nations Executive Committee on Peace and Security has established a special task force. The reporting, experience and capabilities of OHCHR are regularly taken into account by the Secretary-General and relevant departments of the Secretariat involved in the United Nations response to conflicts.

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