The Financial Crisis of UN Special Procedures
By Maya Garner
During the Human Rights Council session, the UN Coordination Committee of Special Procedures delivered a statement on the UN financial crisis under the COVID-19 pandemic. The Committee expressed “grave concern” over the impact of the current funding crisis on the ability of independent UN human rights experts to carry out their work effectively. The experts are responsible for monitoring human rights violations. Any impediment to their work has direct consequences on the Council’s ability to assess UN member states’ adherence to international human rights standards and to carry out such assessments from independent standpoints. The Committee’s statement was delivered at the Council’s 45th session, which began on September 14 and concluded on October 7.
The Committee described the experts as the “eyes and ears” of the UN Human Rights Council, stating that Special Procedures were regarded as “the most accessible UN human rights mechanism.” This pertains in particular to the work of the Special Rapporteurs, who receive daily updates and information. There exists 56 mandates of the Special Procedures set in place to cover universal human rights globally, categorized either as thematic mandates or country-specific mandates. The accessibility of the Special Procedures is of particular importance to strengthen participation of civil society and to combat bureaucracy at the UN Human Rights Council. As such, a decrease in funding and in the ability of independent experts to carry out their work impacts the accessibility of the UN Human Rights Council as a whole.
In the statement, the Committee emphasized that for the UN’s regular budget, only 60 percent of pledged funding by UN Member States had been paid. This has impacted Special Procedures and resulted in work not being carried out. Examples of canceled activities include “making country visits to engage State representatives and other stakeholders, meeting with victims of human rights violations and making concrete recommendations to assist States in fulfilling their human rights obligations.” Evidently, these activities constitute important components of the work of Special Procedures and are crucial to upholding human rights standards. Without these activities in place, and without independent experts enabled to carry them out, the Human Rights Council risks losing touch with the people to whom human rights abuses occur. These activities are essential to the integrity of the Human Rights Council. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented in-person deliveries of reports at UN headquarters, shutting down the opportunity for certain dialogues of mandate holders with “delegations, civil society and UN representatives.” The Committee expressed concern that these processes were not canceled only over concerns of public health.
The Committee stated that “as in every area of human rights, the COVID-19 pandemic must not be used as a justification for States to fail to fund the very mandates that they have chosen to establish.” The Committee emphasized that Member States, having paid less than two thirds of pledged funding, “cannot claim” to live up to their duty of supporting the Special Procedures before they have lived up to their financial commitments. The Committee considered this a “serious neglect of State responsibility.” On top of these concerns, the Committee mentioned that mandate holders of Special Procedures had gone beyond their personal responsibilities and strove to work around their limitations, and that they funded much of their mandated work with money from their own pockets. This strain on mandate holders is regrettable, as Member States ought to facilitate the work of independent experts as far as possible. Yet the present situation is the reverse. The Committee expressed “serious concern” over the possibility of a protection gap occurring if no “urgent action” is taken.
The funding crisis at the level of UN experts is a larger reflection on the impact of COVID-19 and the developmental world, causing a global setback on the path to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This includes the impact on hunger in the world, according to the Global Hunger Index’s assessment, where the pandemic has posed a significant obstacle to fulfilling the goal of “Zero Hunger” (SDG 2) by 2030. The UN now faces the possibility of wealthier nations stepping up to support the world’s poorer countries, or of those countries not offering this support. The latter would have longer-lasting impacts on the global economy and complicate recovery. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN had raised concern over Member States falling short of annual payments. It is within this larger framework that the current situation of the impact on the work of Special Procedures occurs. It falls on Member States to step up and address these concerns before they worsen.