Normative Narratives


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Transparency Report: Civil Society Activism, Social Accountability, and Sustainable Human Development

The UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay opened the high-level segment of the 25th session of the Human Rights Council with a “call to protect, support civil society activism“:

“Streets, airwaves, entire countries are buzzing with demands for economic, social and political justice,”

Setting out this agenda and acknowledging the hard work that lay ahead in ensuring that all people enjoyed equal rights, Ms. Pillay emphasized the important role of civil society in those efforts. “We need to work together to ensure that the space, voice and knowledge of civil society is nurtured in all our countries,” she stressed.

[General Assembly President John Ashe]  drawing attention to upcoming initiatives on human rights issues in the General Assembly, stressed the human rights relevance of his body’s work in setting the stage for a new international development agenda following the 2015 deadline of the Millennium Development Goals.

Overcoming the rise in inequality around the world and the increasing marginalization of people living in poverty is particularly important in that light, he said.

He too pointed to the importance of civil society in pursuing those goals, given “how much courage and fortitude is required by those who champion human rights, when it is so easy to look the other way or take a less courageous stand.”

In related news, the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) announced it will hold 50 new national level consultations as part of its efforts to build local support for the Post-2015 Development Agenda:

The consultations will take the form of public meetings and discussions where policy planners, civil society representatives, community and private sector leaders will discuss how to best deliver the next sustainable development agenda that will build on the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

“We are committed to changing the way multilateral development diplomacy works,” said Olav Kjorven, Special Advisor to the UNDP Administrator on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. “We will continue to expand the areas where people will be able to engage with the work of the United Nations.”

Sustainable human development begins and ends with people. The human rights based approach (HRBA) to development champions both the political and civil rights needed for people to be active participants in change, as well as the economic, social and cultural rights people need to live dignified lives. The HRBA recognizes that these rights are interrelated and interdependent; for example, political reform cannot be put off in the name of economic growth.

There are universal means to improving standard of living; education, food, rule of law, responsive governance, healthcare, sanitation, access to energy, employment to name a few. How these means can be best implemented is context-sensitive; thinking we know better than those at a local level is an exercise in hubris, not development.

Social Accountability (p 44-45) “is used to refer to a broad range of activities in which individuals and CSOs act directly or indirectly to mobilize demand for accountability…Social accountability has worked best when the rules and frameworks in place provide legal sanctions in the event of wrongdoing and permit civil society to monitor effectively and access essential information.”

Without avenues for redress, the transformative value of social accountability activities ultimately depends on the willingness of duty bearers to engage with them. For this reason, social accountability may be more effective when its objective is to complement and strengthen the horizontal accountability mechanisms discussed earlier. Social accountability activities might aim, for example, to reveal the inadequacies of these mechanisms, lobby for their reform or seek to improve their effectiveness through greater public participation. Such interventions can encourage the formation of new “diagonal” accountability mechanisms, such as citizen oversight committees or grievance redress mechanisms (with varying degrees of formality and legal authority).

While social accountability can be a powerful tool, it is most effective when complemented by governments committed to human rights accountability and willing to cede some control over the legal process to CSOs. Essentially, social accountability mechanisms can be made as (in)effective as a government is willing to make them. If governments are ultimately accountable to people, they should do everything in their power to empower their citizenry, enabling effective social accountability. 

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aside, the Post 2015 Development Agenda is a blueprint; a way to show governments how effective inclusive and consultative governance can be. It is not enough to remember the role of regular people in bringing about change while drafting development agendas, or during times of election or revolution. The roles of civil society activism and social accountability must be promoted and protected everyday.

Ultimately, progress is brought about by and for people; governments, institutions, declarations, and development agendas play an enabling/complementary role.

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Transparency Watch: Who Will Hold the UN Accountable?

Haiti is one of the worlds poorest countries, both in terms of GDP per capita (adjusted for standard of living expense, 2012 PPP GDP per capita is estimated at $1,242) and HDI (0.456, 161st out of 187 countries and the lowest in the Western Hemisphere). Any other measure of well-being will turn out similarly dismal results. It is therefore unsurprising that Haiti is the target of many international and multilateral aid campaigns, aimed at increasing the standard of living for Haitians. However, even the most well intended campaigns can have unintended negative consequences, and those responsible must be held accountable.

Original article:

Advocates for Haitian victims of the deadly cholera epidemic that first afflicted their country three years ago said they were taking the extraordinary step on Wednesday of suing the United Nations, asserting that the organization’s peacekeeping force in Haiti was responsible for introducing the disease through sewage contamination from its barracks.

The lawsuit, which the advocates said they would file in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Wednesday morning, will be the strongest action they have taken in pressing the United Nations to acknowledge at least some culpability for the outbreak of cholera, a highly contagious scourge spread through human feces that had been largely absent from Haiti for 100 years.

Cholera has killed more than 8,300 Haitians and sickened more than 650,000 in the earthquake-ravaged country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, since it first reappeared in October 2010. While the worst of the epidemic has eased, it still kills about 1,000 Haitians a year.

United Nations officials have said they are committed to eradicating the cholera, but they have not conceded that the organization was inadvertently responsible for causing it. They also have asserted diplomatic immunity from any negligence claims, a position that has deeply angered many Haitians who consider it a betrayal of United Nations principles.

Haitian leaders, while dependent on the United Nations to help maintain stability and provide other important services, have also expressed unhappiness over the cholera issue. In an address last Thursday at the annual United Nations General Assembly opening session, Haiti’s prime minister, Laurent Lamothe, spoke of what he called the “moral responsibility” of the United Nations in the outbreak, and said the efforts to combat it had been far from sufficient.

Forensic studies, including one ordered by the United Nations, have identified the culprit bacteria as an Asian strain imported to Haiti by Nepalese members of the United Nations peacekeeping force, known as the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, which was first authorized in 2004 and maintains about 8,700 soldiers and police officers there, drawn from more than three dozen member states. The forensic studies have also linked the spread of the cholera to a flawed sanitation system at the Nepalese peacekeeper base, which contaminated a tributary that feeds Haiti’s largest river, used by Haitians for drinking and bathing.

It was far from clear that the lawsuit would be accepted by the court, which affords broad latitude to diplomatic protections for the United Nations against such litigation. These protections are partly rooted in the formal legal conventions created with the inception of the United Nations after World War II. “The majority view is that the U.N. and U.N. entities are immune from domestic lawsuits,” said Jordan J. Paust, a professor of international law at the Law Center of the University of Houston.

Eight months ago, Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, informed Haitian leaders that it would not accept claims for compensation made by victims of the outbreak, citing a provision of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations.

Ms. Lindstrom said the United Nations had also rebuffed her group’s attempts to address the issue. “They’ve refused to sit down for a conversation with the victims, or with us,” she said.

Navi Pillay, the top human rights official at the United Nations, suggested on Tuesday from her headquarters in Geneva that Haiti’s cholera victims were entitled to some compensation, although she did not specify who should provide it.

I am generally very supportive of the United Nations; despite widespread cynicism about the efficacy of international development efforts, I believe the United Nations has played an integral part in establishing / maintaining peace in conflict regions and empowering the worlds most impoverished marginalized since its inception. However, all these positive elements does not exonerate the UN from being held accountable for it’s transgressions.

During my time interning with the UNDP, I was given an assignment to assess survey responses  received from countries with a UNDP country office. While the responses were overwhelmingly positive, there were some caveats. On questions relating to the UNDP’s transparency / accountability / inclusiveness / respect for countries self-determination, little over half of the responses were positive. I noted that since the UNDP was advocating for precisely these aspects in domestic politics, it should lead by example and make it a point to champion these qualities in its day to day activities. Failure to do so, I argued, was hypocritical, paternalistic, and ultimately undermined the UNDPs credibility.

I have written about the Post-2015 development agenda a number of times. At its heart is a human rights based approach to development, with international human rights law spelling out “who will be accountable” for various human rights obligations / violations. In addition, the UN has gone to great lengths to make develop the Post-2015 agenda in an inclusive and consultative manner. As someone that has seen firsthand all the lessons learned from MDG’s shortcomings and hard work that has gone into the Post-2015 agenda, I am cautiously optimistic that the Post-2015 development goals will have a significant positive impact on the worlds most impoverished.

People often talk about the UN losing influence due to it’s inability to enforce its security rules; however the UN has difficulty enforcing it’s norms on these issues, as there is a layer of national sovereignty preventing full implementation of UN principles. The Haitian case is different, the only thing holding the UN back from championing it’s own principles is the UN itself.

The UN’s strength, in my opinion, comes not from influence on security decisions. Rather it is it’s function as a forum for voicing grievances and it’s technical expertise accumulated over decades of employing development experts , alongside it’s country-level presence, that makes the United Nations an integral part of the international community. 

However, failure of the UN to be held accountable for its role in spreading cholera in Haiti could undermine support for the Post-2015 development agenda. Who is the UN to demand accountability from a wide variety of actors (government, business, civil society), when they themselves are not accountable for their own human rights violations (they may ask)? Even if the UN is not legally accountable to the Haitian people, Haiti’s prime minister is right to invoke the idea of the UN’s “moral responsibility”.

OHCHR Chief Navi Pillay understands the importance of accountability and leading by example, and I commend her for coming out and saying the UN should be held accountable for it’s role in the Cholera outbreak in Haiti, especially given (her boss) Secretary General Ban’s unwillingness to even meet with victims and/or their representatives.

It would be nice if the UN realized the importance of it’s own accountability, and settled outside of court. If this does not occur, it will be up to some court to hold the UN legally accountable. 


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They Say I’m Lazy But it Takes All My Time

Logo: 20th Anniversary of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Hello loyal readers,

I meant to write this earlier; I will be unable to write any blogs with week, as my presence is needed to help the UNDP at an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of The Vienna Declaration, the adoption of The Paris Principles, and the formation of the OHCHR and the ICC.

All these events focus around national human rights institutions (NHRI). From less than 10 NHRIs 20 years ago, more than 100 internationally accredited institutions exist today in different forms. These institutions provide citizens and civil society organizations with a means of voicing grievances, and are essential in holding governments accountable for their human rights obligations.

There are many who believe (myself included) that these institutions can go a long way in making up for some issues that prevented the MDGs from being an even more effective poverty eradication / sustainable human development program. NHRIs were virtually non-existent when the MDGs were drafted, today they are recognized as a key actor in implementing and evaluating progress on the Post-2015 Development Goals (which are being developed with human rights at their core).

I will try to write a review of the event if I get a chance, but no promises.

Best,

Ben Zupnick