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Last chance to set human rights free from red tape

A main plank of the United Nations system for the protection of human rights is in trouble. Representatives of Europe's human rights commissions are gathering in Belfast today to work out their response.

The UK is just one of 193 countries that report regularly to the UN on their human rights record. These reports get considered by 10 monitoring bodies with expertise across all human rights (I am vice-chairperson of one of the bodies). These bodies then come up with recommendations to help governments to shape law and practice.

The system has done good work. It delivers expert analysis of a country's human rights situation and targets recommendations that are of help to policy-makers.

It also raises awareness of human rights across government departments and galvanises civil society. Human rights protection across the UK - including Northern Ireland - would be weaker in its absence.

Elsewhere in the world, the system has saved lives and given hope to countless victims of the most extreme forms of violence and abuse.

The problem, though, is that, over the years, this system has become excessively burdensome for governments, the monitoring bodies themselves and other key players, such as human rights commissions.

For example, governments complain that they have to devote far too much time to drawing up their reports. The members of the monitoring bodies, all of whom serve on a voluntary basis, are stretched to the limits.

Few of the very people that the system is meant to protect have ever even heard of it. A worrying number of countries disregard or reject the findings. Worst of all, because it is at the root of many of the problems, the system is chronically under-funded.

Repeated efforts over the past 30 years to sort out the system's problems have met only with very partial success. Instead, the situation has deteriorated to a point where many experts predict imminent crisis and collapse. It was for this reason that, in 2009, I got a series of meetings underway, known as the Dublin Process (because the first and final meetings took place there). We set out a road-map for the sort of big-picture reforms that are needed.

Events were organised across the world, involving all the key stakeholders in the system, and hundreds of good ideas were debated.

For instance, we proposed that the reporting to all 10 of the monitoring bodies be integrated and rationalised, so that the workload for everyone could be more predictable.

We made many suggestions to improve the visibility and accessibility of the system. A lot of the ideas were either money-saving or cost-neutral. Some would require an injection of funds.

Nearly all of our recommendations were taken up by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who published a report on the topic. She presented that report to the UN General Assembly a few weeks ago where the first reactions were mixed.

Most governments (including the UK) were generally positive.

But it was very clear in that first round of debate at the UN that, in order to get a good majority of countries to support the reform proposals, we need the various stakeholder groups to adopt strong supportive positions.

That is the reason for today's meeting of human rights commissions in Belfast: we are gathering to agree a clear, common statement that endorses the report by the High Commissioner and to re-affirm the urgency of the situation.

We will remind the member states of the UN that its human rights protection system is tottering and this may be not only our best, but also our last opportunity to secure its future.


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