1. Specialized UN agencies are supposed to take international action for the achievement of the human rights (HR) recognized in UN covenants. With a few exceptions, most notably ILO, specialized agencies have given little attention to this mandate. Much of the spectrum of implementation falls beyond the institutional competence, expertise, and capacity of the UN-specific HR agencies, so all UN agencies are bound to take HR actions in the realm of their respective mandates.

Not a word play only at stake

2. Bear with me here:
• International ‘supervision’ of HR is not equivalent to the implementation of concrete HR-based development plans.
• Mainstreaming HR is not about coordination, but is a precondition for what the General Assembly calls ‘full HR implementation compliance’.
• Compliance-with and implementation-of HR are not the same either; implementation is to be understood as ‘efforts to administer legal action and policy directives’ towards HR.
• These efforts include developing plans, programs, projects, practices, and other HR-based initiatives and interventions; implementation includes laws, regulations, judicial and quasi-judicial decisions, policies, plans, programs, projects, practices, and other interventions that are designed to ensure the realization of HR.
• Legal implementation is likely to be necessary, but (unfortunately) not sufficient since true operational delivery of HR in communities and beyond is what is, in last instance, actually needed.
• Human rights work thus requires compliance and specific implementation activities.
• As with implementation, states may be in partial compliance –and this is not god enough.

The UN’s mainstreaming of human rights record is notoriously weak

3. Mainstreaming HR highlights the roles of operationalization, institutional culture, and staff internalization in HR work. But the term is often misused. From the right to health perspective, for instance, the universal periodic review of the HR Council mechanism (UPR) has historically been of limited utility, because the discussions, so far, have always focused more on civil and political rights. This, despite the fact that the HR Council is the UN’s apex political body with the specific responsibility for the promotion of all HR including their mainstreaming. To date, the UN HR Council has not done enough to discharge this responsibility. This being the case, mainstreaming has stripped HR efforts of any radical or political potential.

4. Rather than bringing HR from the margins into the mainstream, what is needed is to change the course of the mainstream! What this highlights is that there are many challenges in seeking to transform HR experts into ‘mainstream administrators’.

5. Be reminded: Human rights arose from the idea of revolutionizing human development, not from a call for mainstreaming it into the existing ethos (the ethos of revolution is the opposite of the ethos of mainstreaming!). Mainstreaming has become a soft option, a way of ‘disappearing’ the HR issue. Human rights may be insurrectional, inspirational, judicial, or operational; HR are neither neutral nor purely administrative. This means that, where there are no HR initiatives, they ought to be introduced in all the relevant organizations.

Fiefdoms in the UN?

6. As of today, the UN structure is not designed for a system-wide mainstreaming of HR as mandated by the General Assembly. The UN structure of functional decentralization, autonomy, and true fiefdoms makes the introduction of any system-wide initiative, such as mainstreaming HR, very challenging. If HR are to become part of the culture of UN agencies, funds, programs, and other UN bodies, HR have to be owned and internalized by each organization: they cannot be successfully introduced from outside. It is twenty-nine chief executives from UN bodies that have to mainstream human rights in their organizations!

What it will take

7. If there is to be effective HR mainstreaming, various political, ideological, and other obstacles will have to be addressed. In several UN agencies and international financial institutions (IFIs), the Secretary-General’s call for mainstreaming HR has not yet found resonance apart from evoking half-hearted rhetoric commitments (if any). Truly, the UN system lacks an adequate and shared sense of responsibility for HR violations. Agencies must overcome agency competition, reconcile differences in institutional cultures and more closely involve constructive member states (and public interest civil society organizations!).


8. Human rights in WHO has remained marginal and contested, despite the remarkable efforts of a small handful of highly committed officials. WHO does not yet have a formal human rights policy, in contrast to some of its regional offices, such as the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

Other global organizations do better

9. Conversely, several global organizations or initiatives working on health fall within the path of what should be UN agencies’ HR work. They are already using explicit HR language in pursuit of one or more of the objectives associated with HR. Their HR work appears to be neither slight nor rhetorical; they appear to have reached a minimum HR threshold.

Yes but

10. But it is UN bodies that have the responsibility to translate HR ‘from principles and standards into practicalities’. This begs the question: Is it realistic to expect two or three staff members per agency to drive such an important and ambitious initiative as HR? (The HR Council literally has 36 minutes every five years to consider a country’s under review entire right to health record –is this credible?)

11. Beware though that the HR claims of some organizations may be inauthentic. Criteria are needed to decide whether or not the organization or initiative can properly be regarded as authentic from the HR perspective. For this, the HR element must be explicit (e.g., the implementation explicitly uses HR language and analyses, and/or translates existing HR into practical implementation steps, and/or contributes to the development of the capacities of duty-bearers to meet their obligations and those of claim-holders to actively claim their rights).

Bottom line: a maritime metaphor

12. It is high time to adopt a new understanding of HR that provides agencies and other UN bodies with a practical framework for HR mainstreaming into their work. Human rights have to be owned and internalized by each agency and similar bodies; as said, they cannot be successfully introduced from outside. “There is today an emerging archipelago of HR initiatives lying beyond the UN HR mainland”. The growing influence of the archipelago means that the narrow conception of the UN HR system is being and should be overtaken by on-the-ground practice because, in this respect, the UN HR practices are now badly outdated … and the archipelago focuses much more on ESCR than the mainland –as is a must. The contribution of the archipelago will mainly be towards changing the executive aspects of HR.

13. All this requires a paradigm shift in the United Nations approach to human rights. (from Paul Hunt, Configuring the UN Human Rights System in the ‘Era of Implementation’: Mainland and Archipelago)

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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