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From 1970 to 2000, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the predecessor to today’s Human Rights Council, considered in closed meetings and acted on some 80 country situations where there were reliable allegations of gross violations of human rights. In parallel, the UN Decolonization Committee and the Special Committee Against Apartheid gathered information, listened to petitioners and published reports on a variety of situations of international concern.
These developments did not come without opposition from the major powers. From the outset of the UN, the leading powers had been unwilling to give it the competence it needed to protect the human rights of those suffering from gross violations. In 1947, the Commission on Human Rights, led by Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States, took the position that the entity lacked the ability to deal with the petitions that were sent its way. It was only through the entry of newly independent countries into the UN in the 1960s that the situation began to change.
This second article in a series based on material from UN human-rights archives highlights how the UN has handled gross violations of rights in the past — using a procedure that has since been politically gutted.
In 1970, the Commission on Human Rights, at the behest of the General Assembly, was requested by its parent body, the Economic and Social Council, to consider petitions from individuals and nongovernmental organizations, labeled “communications” alleging the existence of “a situation where there was a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights.” The “communications” had to be “reliably attested” and nonabusive, or not insulting to the government. The selection of situations for the Commission was done by its expert subsidiary, the Sub-Commission.
The first set of situations was examined by the Commission in 1975, and the Commission continued to consider such referrals from its Sub-Commission until the turn of the century. As the 1990s ended, however, member states on the Commission changed the procedure and eliminated selection of situations by experts. Selection was then entrusted to a group of governmental representatives on the Commission itself.
Few situations were chosen after that, and little to no action was taken on them. The gutted procedure remains on paper in the Human Rights Council, but the procedure is now a shell, with emphasis in the Council being put on “cooperation and dialogue” and not on principled consideration of allegations of gross violations.
From 1975 to 2003 the Commission on Human Rights considered and acted on allegations of gross violations of human rights in 84 countries. It took one of three steps in dealing with these situations: first, representatives of the governments accused were invited for a confidential discussion in the Commission, which could take place over successive sessions; second, the Commission occasionally sent an emissary, called an “independent expert,” designated by itself or the UN secretary-general for “direct contacts” with the relevant government in the early years and, later, with the government and the people of the country, eventually producing a report on these contacts.
Third, the Commission sometimes asked the UN Secretariat to offer advise and technical assistance to the relevant government to help it improve its human-rights laws and infrastructure. Occasionally, the Commission moved the situation into public sessions and even adopted resolutions critical of the government.
These were not spectacular actions, but they could be meaningful. Dictatorships in such countries as Argentina, Chile, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Haiti, the Philippines, Uganda, Uruguay and Uzbekistan invariably sought to denounce their accusers and to obstruct the procedures. In one instance, in Uganda, its attorney general vigorously defended his government against allegations of mass slaughter but a week later defected to London and denounced the government of Idi Amin!
Representatives of the governments of Argentina and Chile denounced members of the UN human-rights secretariat as “communist vipers.” Immediately before the fall of the Philippines’ dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, his representative obstructed the Commission when it discussed the country situation. When Marcos fell, the representative professed to be a champion of democracy overnight.
A UN under secretary-general, Davidson Nichol, who was entrusted with directly contacting the president of Ethiopia, Menghistu Haile Mariam, had to meet him in his armored tank at night, as he slept in different places in Addis Ababa, the capital. Nichol submitted a thoughtful report to the Commission expressing concern about the conditions in Ethiopia. A former judge of the International Court of Justice, Charles Onyeama, was entrusted with doing “a thorough study” of the human-rights status in Uganda, where the government had liquidated a quarter of a million of its people. He was met with prevarications and obstruction, and his mandate was discontinued after the collapse of Amin’s dictatorship.
A highly decorated World War II hero from Canada, Michel Gauvin, held direct talks with Haiti in Port-au-Prince and submitted a detailed report to the Commission that was made public. He made several recommendations to help improve the rights situation in Haiti and was followed by other emissaries there focused on human rights.
A professor from Costa Rica, Fernando Volio-Jiménez, led missions to Equatorial Guinea. This is now an oil-rich country, but in his first report, Volio-Jiménez said that in those days it lacked a printing press to publish the laws it enacted. He recommended advisory services and technical assistance.
Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, an under secretary-general who became the head of the UN, was mandated to directly contact missions to Paraguay and Uruguay. He was able to visit Uruguay and submitted a brief report to the Commission. Sadako Ogata, who later became UN High Commissioner for Refugees, led a mission to Burma, now Myanmar, and submitted useful reports to the Commission. She was succeeded by another professor, Yozo Yokota, who also reported to the Commission.
What did all these actions signify? The most important effect for people on the ground was that they knew that the UN was visiting their country and talking to their government and to leading members of society about the human-rights problems and grievances there. This work gave people hope, even if the conditions did not immediately improve.
In one instance, colleagues in the human-rights secretariat noted that in response to allegations of torture in Uruguay, conveyed through petitions to the UN, the government reduced and finally stopped the practice of torture.
After democracy was restored in such countries as Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, the new governments requested that the petitions, records of discussions in the Commission and other confidential documents that had been before the body in closed session be made public. These materials were later used in trials against alleged violators in the countries. The records of the Commission under this procedure became part of the countries’ history.
A famous Argentinian pianist, Miguel Ángel Estrella, imprisoned in Uruguay, later related how the actions of the UN had given optimism to his fellow prisoners. The Mothers of the Disappeared — Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo — in Argentina and Chile acknowledged and later affirmed that the UN’s human-rights body had provided them courage in their struggle and suffering.
Thank you, United Nations, for helping to defend these victims of gross violations of human rights.