In this article, Koen Donatz analyses the latest trends in the sphere of human rights policy. Examining the current state of accountability mechanisms, press freedoms, Koen observes that human rights are coming under pressure across Eurasia, as are the mechanisms to keep governments accountable for human rights violations. Yet civil society organisations, citizen journalists and the reform of the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review system are potential avenues for enhancement of accountability.
Eleanor Roosevelt holding poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in English), Lake Success, New York. November 1949.
The 10th of December marks Human Rights Day, an annual day that commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations in 1948 (United Nations, n.d.). The Declaration stipulates a broad range of rights all human beings are entitled to, including the right to liberty, freedom of expression and the right to equal pay for equal work (ibid). The adoption of the UDHR was a important historic event, as it was the first time the international community agreed on such universal, individual rights (Amnesty International, n.d.). However, while agreeing on such a human rights document is one thing, actually implementing it is something entirely different. To safeguard human rights, it is essential that governments are held accountable for their actions (United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights & Center for Economic and Social Rights, 2013, p.4-5). This article shows that accountability mechanisms are under threat in Eurasia and offers three ideas to nonetheless foster accountability: Empowering civil society, collaborating with citizen journalists and improving the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review system.
The decline of accountability mechanisms in Eurasia
There are various ways in which governments can be held accountable for (potential) human rights violations, including protecting and maintaining free press, critical academics and an independent judicial system. Unfortunately, the strength of such mechanisms is declining in various places in Eurasia. First, press freedom is under siege in several Eurasian countries. Reporters without Borders (2022) annually ranks countries from most to least free.
Compared to 2021, the press freedom situation significantly deteriorated in countries including Kuwait, Palestine, Greece and Myanmar. The sharpest deterioration however occurred in Hong Kong, which ranked 68 places lower in 2022 than it did in 2021 (ibid). Second, the World Justice Project’s (2022) Rule of Law Index measures factors related to judicial checks on government power and the independence of the judiciary. The index shows that between 2015-2022 the rule of law has deteriorated in all Asian regions except for Central Asia (ibid). Third, the V-Dem Institute and Friedrich-Alexander-Universität’s Academic freedom index (2022, p.2-3) shows that academic freedom is declining in all regions across the world except for Sub-Sahara Africa. Turkey, Thailand and Russia are among the countries with the largest reductions in academic freedoms over the past decade (ibid). In short, several mechanisms that can keep governments accountable for human rights violations are under threat in Eurasia. Below are three ideas for enhancing accountability in these challenging circumstances.
Empowering civil society organisations
Civil society can play an important role in protecting human rights (Vieira & Dupree, 2004). Thereby, civil society does not only refer to human rights NGOs, but also to religious groups, professional associations and cultural institutions, to name a few examples (Ingram, 6 April 2020). Many states shown at best scepticism and at worst outright hostility towards human rights NGOs. For instance, India has enforced a crack down on human rights NGOs, causing Amnesty International to leave the country in 2020 (BBC, 3 January 2022). However, it is impossible for governments to completely ban all civil society organisations. All Eurasian governments, with the possible exception of North Korea (Human Rights Watch, 2022), allow some form of religious, professional and cultural organisations which have a degree of independence from the state.
Even though most civil society organisations do not primarily focus on human rights, they may hold their governments accountable for human rights violations that are of interest to them, such as religious freedom (religious groups), labour rights (professional organisations) and freedom of expression (cultural institutions). Such civil society organisations can further enhance their impact if they team up to form coalitions. A good example hereof is Impact Iran, a coalition of 17 Iranian NGOs that jointly call for more attention for the human rights situation in their country at the UN (Impact Iran, n.d.). Governments that are serious in their commitment to human rights should support such civil society groups with by heeding their requests and providing them with funding. Developed countries should moreover reserve a part of their Official Development Assistance budget for civil society groups in countries whose governments are unwilling or unable to fund them. Relevant civil society groups, or coalitions hereof, should furthermore be granted access to international bodies such as the UN Human Rights Council or the G20, so they can make their case in the international arena as well.
Collaboration with citizen journalists
Some Eurasian states make the work of professional journalists very difficult, but all states have citizens with smartphones. When professional journalists cannot carry out their work, these citizens can film, photograph or write about human rights violations in their country instead. The phenomenon by which citizens report news-worthy events in the place of journalists is called citizen journalism (Cambridge dictionary, n.d.). Citizen journalism has been important in the current protests in Iran, where many citizens started to film and share videos of the protests and the regime’s violent response to it (Hosseini, 10 November 2022). Citizen journalism was also an instrumental part of the Arab Spring (Ismail et al., 2018). In fact, during chaotic events such as the Arab Spring, large media corporations may become reliant on what citizen journalists share on social media (Hänska-Ahy & Shapour, 2013, p.2). At the same time, citizen journalists need media companies such as the BBC to reach a large (foreign) audience. Its thus important that citizen journalists and media companies find ways to collaborate in reporting human rights violations (ibid, p.13-14). For media companies this entails using information from citizen journalists when its trustworthiness can be verified, while citizen journalists should ensure the footage they gather is relevant and useful for media reporting (ibid).
Strengthening the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review system
Via the UN Human Rights Council’s (HRC) Universal Periodic Review system (UPR), each state’s human rights situation is reviewed once every few years by the members of the HRC (United Nations Human Rights Council, n.d.). When a country is under review, any UN member can ask questions or make recommendations concerning that country’s human rights situation, while civil society actors can make comments as well (ibid). To give an example, Austria was under review in 2021 and received 213 recommendations from 116 different countries. These recommendations included: Providing more legal assistance to asylum seekers (India), making the labour market more accessible to people with disabilities (Cyprus) and further implementing policies against gender-based violence (Romania) (United Nations Human Rights Council, 2021, p.18-20). The UPR system is useful in making governments answer for their domestic human rights situation, yet the system is imperfect.
Szurlej highlights various aspects for improvement:
- Give a greater role to civil society in the preparation phase of the review and the review itself.
- Each state that wants to speak during the review only has a couple of minutes. Hence, they must use this limited speaking time to offer concrete recommendations, rather than complimenting the state under review on what is going well.
- After the UPR, states should be obliged to present an action plan detailing the practical implementation of the received recommendations.
- The states and civil society organizations that provided recommendations should also monitor whether the reviewed states followed through on those recommendations (Szurlej, 2013, p.202-2015).
Human Rights Day serves as an important reminder of the adoption of the UDHR 74 years ago, but it is not a particularly festive occasion. From Russian war crimes in Ukraine to modern slavery in Qatar, human rights are under pressure across Eurasia, as are the mechanisms to keep governments accountable for human rights violations. Yet, whereas journalists, universities and judiciaries are experiencing decreasing margins for manoeuvre in Eurasia, there are other accountability mechanisms that can be enhanced. Civil society organizations deserve funding and access to domestic and international policymakers, media companies and citizen journalists must find effective ways to collaborate and states should support the strengthening of the UPR system. These recommendations are surely not a panacea, but they may be a good starting point for a Eurasia where governments are held accountable for how they address human rights.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
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