Human rights has been an important global issue since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in 1945. To list a few, the human rights discourse has helped transform international norms, set basic standards, and shape domestic policies. Other international and Non-governmental organizations have also been incremental in assuring strict human rights standards are met domestically and internationally, but that has been accompanied with a lot of doubt and backlash. Critics are questioning the United Nations contributions in the promotion and protection of human rights standards. Are they still needed to implement and report human rights standards? Can they be trusted to assure fair and monitoring practices for developing and developed nations?
These are questions scholars are still exploring as the UN try to implement new changes in the way they monitor human rights in nation-states. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR), is a fairly new monitoring and evaluating tool that took the place of the UN Commission on Human Rights. The old system was criticized for being politically focused and not fairly reporting on human rights issues for both developing and developed nations. UPR is a report “which aims to promote a universal approach and equal treatment when reviewing each country’s human rights situation” (Cowan & Billaud, pg 1176). As much as this change is needed, one still has to consider if credible reform is actually taking place or is this another tool to label nations as equals while practicing unfair reporting?
UPR allows UN member states, NGOs, and the Secretariat to rate and score human rights standards and offer recommendations to nation-states. They also use reports from other agencies to help with the concluding evaluation. Evidently, this reporting system turns out to be a juvenile scoring system, like Cowan and Billaud put it in their article, “a school with hierarchies, cliques, ruses, and exam anxieties” (pg. 1177). Developing countries will score lower because they are still trying to combat domestic human rights problems, while developed countries will most likely hide or cover up many of their human rights abuses. For example, the United States will not be judged on their human rights abuses towards African Americans because their are legal justifications to cover up those abuses. Countries like China and Russia will be reluctant to allow certain nation-states to investigate their domestic human rights abuses. Those that are chosen will be allies and are unlikely to be objective. It is also important to consider the historical and cultural context of human rights in different regions and states.
Cowan and Billaud makes an important point by mentioning how the historical context of states can be the root causes of human rights situations. Many states are not on a level playing field due to how history has effected them. The global south continues to struggle with human rights abuses such as poverty, lack of social freedom, child labor, and etc… due to their colonial past. The global north has advanced tremendously as a result of colonial rule. Nations-states can not be held on equal standards because they have not been on equal playing field for decades. The authors also left out how culture and tradition play an important role in shaping human rights.
Many developing created policies and have governed based on cultural and traditional norms. African countries has a long history of tribal values that are of high importance to different tribes. For example, Female Genital Mutilation is considered a human rights issue but north and west African tribes have practiced this for centuries. Domestic governments are working to eradicate these practices but are left with tension between tribal leaders and government officials. How can UPR take this into account when reporting on human rights situations for each country?
It is idealistic to think the Universal Periodic Review will continue as a equal, fair, and non-political evaluation mechanism. Nation-states are not on an equal playing field and Western countries should not be used as a template to strive for human rights. It is time the United Nations step back and allow more objective bodies to monitor human rights situations and recommendations. There should be a more holistic approach to human rights monitoring which include historical, cultural, and traditional considerations. Nation-states should not be involved in evaluating their counter parts. Until their is a holistic approach to human rights reporting, monitoring and evaluation the UN contribution will always be biased.