Why you should care
Because what could prevent another Rwanda or Bosnia if not the U.N.?
The United Nations was ready for Myanmar. In March, the Human Rights Council issued a resolution calling for an independent, international fact-finding mission to investigate atrocities committed by the country’s security forces against Rohingya Muslims. By late May, the president of the council had vetted and assigned three experts known as special rapporteurs. A month later they were ready to fly to Southeast Asia — an alacrity virtually unprecedented in getting a U.N. commission off the ground.
But Myanmar said no, ordering its embassies not to issue visas to the U.N. investigators. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto head of government and Nobel Laureate whose personal struggle brought democracy to Myanmar, claimed the Rohingya were responsible because they instigated armed factions. As of last week, the three inspectors, led by U.N. special rapporteur on human rights, Yanghee Lee of South Korea, were in Bangladesh refugee camps, interviewing survivors of the atrocities, trying to piece together a picture of a potential Rohingya genocide.
On Tuesday, the U.N. opened its 72nd General Assembly in New York. In this session, various committees are likely to hear multiple fact-finding reports, including the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which has found the Syrian government responsible for the April 2017 chemical attack, and the Burundi Commission of Inquiry, which concluded that officials at the highest level, including the country’s president, committed crimes against humanity.
[U.N. fact-finding missions] deserve to be fully supported … and adequately resourced.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights
In the early years, fact-finding commissions generally were accepted, since they reported on atrocities that had already taken place. But now, as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights attempts to sanction or prevent inhumanity in action, as in Myanmar, the rate of refusal has escalated, with those in power openly questioning the right of the U.N. to meddle in their internal affairs. “There is no way to force countries to accept a human rights mission — and even if there were, there could be security issues, people watching at all times, putting fear in the investigators and the people they are trying to help,” says Rupert Colville, an OHCHR spokesperson. “There is always political horse trading, but Myanmar is happening — just because we didn’t get in does not mean the report won’t be hugely influential.”
U.N. fact-finding missions have been around since the beginning but gained favor in the 1990s when the Security Council called for information gathering on the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. “Since then, there has been an explosion of different types of monitoring, reporting and fact-finding missions,” says Rob Grace, a researcher with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. In fact, this past year marked one of the busiest for the OHCHR, as the agency issued its 60th report in the 25 years it has been responsible for generating on-the-ground information for the Security Council, General Assembly, Human Rights Council and other U.N. bodies.
Lately, though, for every successful mission, at least one is blocked, such as Myanmar; one that raises questions about political favoritism, such as Palestine, where Israel has turned away U.N. inspectors for nearly a decade; and one that is seen as window dressing, such as the Rwanda report that some human rights lawyers claim was written to fulfill a mandate, not to achieve anything substantial, like war crime convictions or reparations. Last year’s denial of a fact-finding mission to Yemen, a country in the middle of civil war between a Saudi Arabia–backed government and an Iran-backed resistance, outraged activists, who flagged Saudi Arabia’s political maneuvering within the U.N. to avoid scrutiny.
Despite their faults, these missions have become some of the U.N.’s biggest business — a job not necessarily foreseen when the international body was formed in 1945. The inquiries not only gather and verify facts but also create an historical record of events and recommend reparation to victims, according to Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. “They deserve to be fully supported, including by receiving the cooperation they require from states, and to be adequately resourced,” he said in a recent statement.
But are they? The U.N. is trying to figure that out.
Colville, the OHCHR spokesperson, says that the agency assembles five or six commissions per year — missions that put a “huge strain on this organization, which is quite small and understaffed” — it has roughly 1,000 full-time employees to keep 195 nations in line on human rights — “but which not one person has ever said ‘what a waste of time, we should not have set this one up.’ Sometimes we even call for them — the high commissioner has a very powerful voice,” Colville says.
Indeed, on September 11, Al Hussein was in Geneva at the 36th session of the Human Rights Council, where he presented a second demand for an international inquiry on Yemen, as well as one on Venezuela. He admonished the council for being inconsistent in its creation of inquiries and member states for “defending the rights of humans elsewhere — in order to project themselves as global players, while at home openly denying the rights of their own people.”
The high commissioner has basically told the U.N., Myanmar, Syria and the rest of the world that he isn’t going away. Testifying in Geneva, Al Hussein laid out a litany of human rights abuses in nearly 40 countries. “Terrorists may attack us, but the intellectual authors of those crimes will then often sit back and watch as governments peel away at human rights protections and watch as our societies gradually unravel … toward authoritarianism and oppression,” Al Hussein said. “My vision for the work of my office has become more determined, drawing even more deeply on the lessons which come to us from our forebears: Human rights principles are the only way to avoid global war and profound misery and deprivation.”