The Trump administration has stopped cooperating with a key element of United Nations global human rights monitoring.
Special Rapporteurs are independent experts tapped by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to report on human rights situations around the world. Sometimes these issues are country specific — like the special rapporteur for Iran or North Korea — and sometimes these are thematic, like the Special Rapporteur on persons with disabilities or the Special Rapporteur for the Freedom of Expression.
In the UN the network of special rapporteurs and independent experts are known as “special procedures,” and according to a new report from The Guardian, the Trump administration has ceased cooperation with all of them.
Quietly and unnoticed, the state department has ceased to respond to official complaints from UN special rapporteurs, the network of independent experts who act as global watchdogs on fundamental issues such as poverty, migration, freedom of expression and justice. There has been no response to any such formal query since 7 May 2018, with at least 13 requests going unanswered.
The silent treatment being meted out to key players in the UN’s system for advancing human rights marks a stark break with US practice going back decades. Though some areas of American public life have consistently been ruled out of bounds to UN investigators – US prisons and the detention camp on Guantánamo Bay are deemed off-limits – Washington has in general welcomed monitors into the US as part of a wider commitment to upholding international norms.
Felipe González Morales, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, has twice approached the US government requesting a formal visit to inspect how the country is handling immigration including the crisis at the Mexican border – once in March and then in July. He has yet to receive a reply.
“In the absence of an official visit, we cannot publish a country report to be presented to the UN human rights council,” he said.
The UN expert on adequate housing, Leilani Farha, told the Guardian that she was concerned about the silence emanating from the US state department. Having been appointed to the post in 2014, she made five official complaints to the Obama administration and in each case received “timely, thoughtful and constructive responses, even if we continued to disagree”.
Non-cooperation with UN special procedures by the United States could undermine the cause of human rights around the world.
These special rapporteurs do have a pretty strong track record of advancing human rights. In 2010, a Brookings Institution study found that the UN’s Special Rapporteurs were “catalysts” for advancing human rights. That is, more often than not, these special rapporteurs and independent experts were able to secure tangible human rights gains in fragile situations. The report also found that the greatest challenge to the special rapporteurs came when countries refused to cooperate, including refusing visas or simply ignoring requests for information. The countries that take this kind of hostile stand against special procedures tend to be countries with awful human rights records (think: North Korea).
Countries with problematic human rights records, but nonetheless do not want to be considered rogue regimes, often grudgingly cooperate, which is where most progress occurs.
The United States has now joined the ranks of countries like North Korea, Iran, Eritrea that simply ignore the requests of UN human rights monitors.
Now that the United States is no longer cooperating with these human rights monitors, other countries will feel less pressure to comply with the requests of special rapporteurs. Their track record of success is now very much in jeopardy.