Powers of the OHCHR in the UN: An office on the verge of losing its credibility

Updated: Aug 1

Pratik Dutta,

Research Intern,

Internationalism


It’s common knowledge that, although the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) are separate bodies, they work closely together for the betterment and enforcement of international human rights. Unfortunately, this closeness cannot be disassociated with the recent controversial decisions of the OHCHR as accusations of bias decisions have always marred the UNHRC and now it seems the High Commissioners office has duplicated the former's controversial characteristics, thus abusing the powers and mandate forwarded to it by Resolution 48/141 of the UN General Assembly, thus bringing down its credibility.


To understand the context of bias that the UNHRC is often accused of, one must look at the disdain that the body has against Israel often encapsulated in the resolutions passed against them in reference to the Palestinian question; this stance is a very hypocritical one which has persisted since the body's evolution from its predecessor i.e. the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2006. The hypocrisy lies in the 47 membered body’s unilateral decision to chastise the only democratic state in the Middle-East that has a better record of human rights when compared to the other countries in the region who are worse off than Israel when it comes to the practice of reinforcing human rights. It is due to this issue of bias that the former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley had reiterated the Trump administration's support to Israel by announcing their withdrawal from the UNHRC in June 2018; Haley has called this decision as a required one so as to protest the Council's negative obsession that has turned into a “chronic bias against Israel.” This contention of bias is not unwarranted as most Council member seats are filled by countries that have horrifying human rights records, for example, Saudi Arabia, Burundi, Iraq, Venezuela, China, Pakistan etc, and UN resolution 60/251 specifically states that “Human Rights Council members shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion of human rights.”


The OHCHR supports the United Nations human rights mechanisms vociferously, such as the Human Rights Council, the Special Procedures and the expert committees monitoring international human rights treaties. It assists governments in strengthening their human rights capacities, promotes ratification and implementation of international human rights treaties. The Office also works with Governments and other partners such as national institutions to ensure all human rights are fully respected.


Since 2006 the OHCHR has been under the scanner due to their nearness with the UNHCR along with their failure to disapprove the biased and hypocritical stances of the UNHRC as the OHCHR provides technical, substantive and secretariat support to the Council at the end of the day. It has been made crystal clear that the OHCHR receives its mandate from the resolutions passed by the United Nations General Assembly but it is due to the misuse of such a mandate that has stirred up and aggravated a controversy that has caused the OHCHR’s credibility to take a grievous hit. This controversy relates to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s unprecedented decision to file an intervention application at the Supreme Court of India pertaining to the constitutional validity of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that was recently passed by the Parliament of India. Such an act of intervention undoubtedly raises some serious questions pertaining to the powers of the OHCHR.


Section 4(d) of the mandate (resolution 48/141 given by the General Assembly) to the OHCHR states that “To provide, through the Centre for Human Rights of the Secretariat and other appropriate institutions, advisory services and technical and financial assistance, at the request of the State concerned….” Here it states in a concrete manner that the State in question has to request assistance to the OHCHR, only then it can it offer advisory services and the fact of the matter is that no voluntary assistance is allowed even if the OHCHR looks to intervene in the court proceedings as an amicus curiae of the court which they have done in the present case.


The most fundamental grievance that is so nauseating and troubling is the OHCHR’s mistranslation or even ignorance of the mandate given to them by the General Assembly as no direct authorization comes up from this mandate allowing the authority to file applications of any nature in national courts. Such a contravention of an explicit mandate reminds analysts of the attitude of the Americans in 2003 when they ignored UNSC resolution 1441 which asked for Iraq to allow the passage of UN inspectors inside the country, failure to such consideration could lead to severe consequences but which did not explicitly give the go-ahead for an invasion of the country; in the end, the UNSC resolution was done away with when the coalition forces led by America invaded the country causing pandemonium in a country which has still not been resolved to this day.


The image of the OHCHR hangs in the balance if it does not follow the UN-mandated procedure and copies infamous precedents of past transgressions. The ire of democratic countries like India and Israel will harm the OHCHR as these countries are the ones whose support is needed to promote human rights and the blind support of countries notorious for human rights abuses will bring down the credibility of this hallowed institution.

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