Posts tagged ‘Rosa Freedman’

October, 2013

Reflections on using an interdisciplinary lens

The blog posts this week have explored different aspects of international human rights. My research interests include the United Nations human rights machinery, political processes around human rights and the developments occurring at the international level. Human rights are not static. They evolve as global society changes. The field constantly adapts and responds to new challenges. Understanding the mechanisms and processes involved requires a bridging of the gap between scholars of international law and international relations. International law depends heavily on politics, diplomacy and international relations. Using an interdisciplinary lens to view the UN and international human rights enables a greater understanding of what ought to occur and what actually happens ‘on the ground’.

One main area of my work is on the United Nations Human Rights Council. My book on that body,  The United Nations Human Rights Council: A critique and early assessment,  explores the extent to which the Council is fulfilling its mandate. I use international relations theories to understand the political processes that affect the Council undertaking its duties. It is only through an understanding of the politics that occurs within that body that we can find solutions to enable the Council better to protect and promote human rights.


My second book (to be published in May 2014) is entitled ‘Failing to Protect: The United Nations and Politicisation of Human Rights.’ The UN has three human rights mandates – to develop, promote and protect rights. The book focuses on the protection mandate. It explores how and why the UN fails adequately to protect human rights. While the Organisation does wonderful work in developing and promoting rights, it is the systematic and grave violations that make the headlines; and rightly so. In order to find solutions, there needs to be greater understanding of the problems. Aimed at a non-specialist audience, the book explains the overlap between international law and politics and how that impacts on protecting rights. It demonstrates the need for stronger protection mechanisms and for ways of enforcing human rights.


Sparking conversations and discussions about the UN and human rights is crucial for ensuring that the system continues to be refined and honed in such a way as to afford better protection to individuals. Those conversations ought not to take place solely at the academic level. Nor is it sufficient for them only to take place between scholars of law and political science. Involving policy-makers, activists, the media, the wider public and other interested parties will enable more effective protection of rights. Academic research informs those discussions. My aim to ensure that my research is disseminated to as wide an audience as possible in order to fuel ongoing debates.

Rosa Freedman @GoonerDr

October, 2013


‘Make love not war’ was the slogan of the 60s. Surely one of the most effective ways to save humans is to ensure peace? Indeed, the United Nations primary purpose is to ensure international peace and security. It is at the heart of the modern system of international law and politics. But how does the pursuit of peace map across into international human rights?

In 1976 the Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution stating that there is a right to peace. Two years later the General Assembly with a Declaration on that same topic. In the same year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation declared that there is a right to peace to which each individual is entitled. But simply declaring a right does not mean that it exists.

There has been a growing trend towards viewing peace as a human right. A group of rather disparate and not necessarily connected academics, NGO activists, practitioners, government delegates and UN staff are setting out more and more evidence to place ‘peace’ within the international human rights framework. The reasoning goes that peace impacts upon the attainment and realisation of all other rights. So – the proponents say – if we develop and enshrine a right to peace then it will have a positive impact on the whole system.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? In an ideal world, we would all live in peace and that would help to ensure that our other rights were more easily realised. But that does not mean that the peace has fully entered the international human rights law system. There are no international or regional legal mechanisms that protect an individual’s right to peace. There is no redress or remedy, at those levels, for a violation of the right to peace. But there have been some positive developments in recent years.

The first case on this subject was brought in 2003 before a court in Costa Rica. Luis Roberto Zamora Bolanos successfully sued the Costa Rican government over its support for the invasion of Iraq and over its plans to extract and process nuclear materials. This led to legislation being annulled within that state. The grounds for the case were that the government was violating the right to peace. In 2006, Zamora brought another case challenging the Arms Decree on the grounds that it threatened the right to peace. The court used this case to discuss the ambit of the right to peace, saying it is more than just a duty to avoid war. The court found that there is a positive duty to actively promote peace and justice. This case formally established Costa Rica as the first country to recognise, legally, the right to peace.

The United Nations Human Rights Council and the United Nations General Assembly have continued to discuss and pass resolutions on the right to peace. There is a growing body of evidence from these political bodies that suggests that many countries around the world recognise that there is a right to peace. Many countries, but not all. Almost every country voting against or abstaining on these resolutions are from the Global North. Most countries who take the floor during discussions support the right to peace, again with Western states being the exception. The ideological divide is clear –and that divide is an obstacle to ‘peace’ being enshrined within international human rights law.

There is merit to the argument that international human rights is expanding far beyond traditional notions and that newer rights, like the one to peace, threaten to dilute the system. That area increasingly includes subjects – such as politics, the environment and economics – that are difficult to protect or promote and that might better be dealt with through other frameworks.

But that expansion has occurred because there is a greater understanding of the overlap between different areas. Peace may be a political ideal, but it is also a fundamental tool for realising other human rights. Where peace is undermined, individuals’ rights cannot adequately be implemented or protected. There seems to be increasing awareness of the need to enshrine, promote and protect the right to peace, despite the right pushing against the boundaries of traditional understandings of human rights.

Follow Rosa Freedman on Twitter: @GoonerDr

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October, 2013

The right to adequate housing: the UK and the spare room subsidy

Last month there was great controversy when the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing commented on the spare-room subsidy. Raquel Rolnik caused a furore by daring to criticise the UK for human rights violations rather than focusing her efforts on graver situations elsewhere in the world. She commented on the coalition’s policy that is designed to charge council house tenants for supposedly under-occupying homes based on numbers of residents and bedrooms. Ms Rolnik claims that the policy could violate the right to adequate housing, not least owing to the shortage of one and two bedroom council housing. She also noted that the subsidy may impact the realisation of other rights, particularly where people were forced to choose between housing, food and heating.


The UN Special Rapporteur used a human rights lens to view the spare room subsidy. She did not say anything that has not already been discussed in the UK media. Yet Ms Rolnik’s comments hit a raw nerve with the government. Grant Shapps, the Conservative Party Chairman, sent a letter of complaint to the United Nations, demanding an apology and an explanation for her comments. He accused Ms Rolnik of bias and political motives. He questioned why she had visited the UK, accusing her of conducting her fact-finding mission without permission.

In fact, Mr Shapps appears to have been badly briefed or perhaps not briefed at all. UN Special Rapporteurs cannot visit a country without permission. The UK has issued a standing invitation to all UN Special Rapporteurs. Even then, if one wants to visit s/he must liaise with the government before arriving on these shores. Any visit requires a great deal of coordination with the country’s government in order to set up meetings with ministers and opposition party members, national human rights institutions, citizens, and any other actors. It is never the case that a Special Rapporteur just turns up unannounced. Ample opportunities exist for a country either tacitly or expressly to block a visit. Indeed, many countries have blocked visits. Some have simply ignored requests to coordinate visits; others have refused to issue visas; while some states have failed to comply Special Rapporteurs’ terms by blocking access to state and non-state actors.

Ms Rolnik’s visit to the UK, then, was not an intrusion. It was a carefully planned and coordinated visit to which the UK government had consented. So, why was there such uproar?

UN independent experts on human rights are part of a broader mechanism called Special Procedures. The system is crucial for fact-finding, information-sharing, monitoring, reporting and providing recommendations on human rights. Individuals are appointed for fixed terms and given a mandate to examine a specific human rights issue. Mandate holders are independent experts, usually academics or former human rights activists. They undertake their duties part time and are not paid by the UN. They are independent from both the Organisation and its member states.

Some mandates focus on all human rights within one specific country. Others focus on one specific right across the world. Each mandate holder chooses where to conduct visits, of course depending on the consent of the countries concerned. Those visits then lead to reports and recommendations for that country. Mandate holders also produce reports that outline broader issues, best practices, and provide general recommendations. They provide countries with guidance, assistance and concrete steps to follow when implementing human rights.

The UN Secretary-General has described Special Procedures as ‘the crown jewel’ of the UN human rights machinery. Because Special Rapporteurs are independent and expert their reports carry significant weight and are afforded a great deal of respect. Little wonder, then, that a country like the UK would be up-in-arms when criticised by a Special Rapporteur.

The UK is not the first country from the Global North to criticise a Special Rapporteur for reporting on human rights issues within its territory. Canada’s immigration minister, Jason Kenney, suggested that the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food had wasted UN money by visiting his country in 2012. The US accused the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty of bias and political motives for visiting that country in 2005. Those other Global North states, have voiced concerns about why they have received visits when the experts could have gone to other countries with far more acute problems. On the face of it, that argument has some merit, but scratch below the surface and it does not stand up to scrutiny.

At the heart of international human rights is their universal nature. Rights apply to all individuals regardless of race, religion, nationality, gender, sexuality or any other characteristic. All countries can improve their human rights records. From Sweden to Somalia, from Norway to North Korea, there is a need to protect and promote human rights. If the UN only focused on states with the most acute problems, then individuals in more developed countries would be afforded no protection. And, crucially, if the UN only focused on some states or regions then the legitimacy of the Special Procedures system – based on its universality – would wholly be undermined.

Of course no country likes to be criticised publicly or to have information shared about violations on its soil. But the UK, which has been at the fore of international human rights since its creation, would have done well to remember its obligations and commitments when Ms Rolnik visited its territory.

Follow Rosa Freedman on Twitter: @GoonerDr 

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