How to sell a UN reform to member states

Five lessons from the Human Rights Up Front initiative



by Gerrit Kurtz

They had expected it anxiously. When I spoke with the UN officials working on the Secretary General’s Human Rights Up Front initiative last year, they were concerned the internal initiative could become intertwined in the polarized debates between UN member states on the role of human rights in the organization. The UN Secretary-General launched the initiative in 2013, with the aim to raise the profile of human rights in the work of the whole UN system. As a reaction to a devastating internal review panel report on the UN’s actions in Sri Lanka, the initiative includes a detailed action plan to improve the mechanisms for raising serious human rights violations with member states, for internal crisis coordination, and information management regarding such violations. The UN officials – rightly – felt that the new engagement of the UN system with member states that the initiative entailed had to build on its two other elements: cultural and operational change within the UN system, i.e. coherence between the development, peace and security and human rights arms of the UN.

As I argued in my policy paper published last July, Human Rights Up Front could not remain a pure UN matter; to be successful in the mid- to long-term, member states need to endorse it wholeheartedly. This includes an increased funding for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and an intergovernmental mandate for a more political role of UN Country Teams. In a letter on Christmas Eve 2015, the Secretary-General officially recognized the crucial role of member states: „While the Initiative is internal, its objectives speak to the purposes of the whole United Nations and will be greatly enhanced by support from Member States.“

On 27 January 2016, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson briefed the General Assembly on the initiative’s implementation since its inception more than two years ago. The broad support he received from the member states present holds five important lessons for selling UN human rights diplomacy more generally.

First, open consultations facilitate trust and transparancy. Many of the 22 member states and one regional organization (EU) that spoke during the informal briefing session, expressively welcomed the opportunity for open dialogue itself. While Eliasson had briefed member states twice before (in New York and Geneva) on Human Rights Up Front, and both he and Ban Ki-Moon referred to it in their speeches, the interactive session provided an opportunity to take stock with member states.

Second, take on board your critics. In reaction to previous comments from member states, Eliasson explicitly referred to the relevance of social, economic and cultural rights violations as precursors to physical violence and instability. China’s and Nigeria’s inputs duly acknowledged the importance of development for prevention.

Third, universality. The delegate from Iran asked how the UN could adequately respond to human rights violations in the Global North such as increasing xenophobia when most of its offices were in developing countries – a longstanding criticism in UN human rights forums. Eliasson emphasized the comprehensive reach of the early warning and coordination mechanisms, and compared it to the successful example of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in the Human Rights Council, which commits every UN member state to a thorough peer-review of its human rights record. Indeed, the regional quarterly reviews, a new early warning and coordination mechanism introduced as part of Human Rights Up Front, look at all world regions. These coordination meetings bring together officials from divergent UN agencies to review adequacy of the UN’s response to potential risks for serious human rights violations.

Forth, association with existing mandates and agendas. Whenever the UN secretariat comes up with its own initiatives, it creates certain anxieties among member states eager to control the international bureaucracy. It was a sign of the Deputy Secretary-General’s successful outreach that no member state questioned the initiative and the role of the secretariat in coming up with it per se. In addition, Eliasson had his staff compile a list of the Charter provisions, treaties and resolutions by the General Assembly and the Security Council relevant to conflict prevention and human rights diplomacy. Responding to calls to do so for example by China, he also welcomed the role of conflict prevention as part of agenda 2030, in particular its goal 16.

Fifth, personal experience and credibility. Human Rights Up Front’s outreach benefits tremendously from having DSG Eliasson as champion in the secretariat. Not only did he conduct several mediation efforts himself, he was part of key normative and operative developments in the United Nations in the past twenty years that pertain to the Human Rights Up Front agenda. As first Emergency Relief Coordinator of the United Nations, he saw at first hand the resulting coordination challenges for the newly created position of humanitarian coordinators, a task usually taken up by the existing resident coordinator and resident representative of UNDP. In 2005, he presided over the record-breaking World Summit as president of the General Assembly, which endorsed the notion of a responsibility to protect populations from mass atrocity crimes, and agreed on the establishment of the Human Rights Council and Peacebuilding Commission. Under his leadership, the General Assembly later agreed on the details of the Human Rights Council, including the UPR. All of this provides Eliasson with unrivaled credibility among member states; his diplomatic skills enable him to put this status into practice.

The overwhelmingly positive welcome in the General Assembly session should not disregard the fair and important questions that even constructive member states still have. Several representatives such as Australia and Argentina asked for concrete examples of the initiative’s implementation, and China wanted to know which experiences the Secretariat had made in the first two years of the action plan’s implementation. While much of the high diplomacy of the UN may be sensitive and should remain confidential for the time being, there is no reason why the UN could not report on efforts taken after the fact, in consultation with the country concerned. After all, OHCHR reports annually about its activities including on a country basis, as do other UN entities. Indeed, three UN officials wrote a blog entry for UNDG how Human Rights up Front had helped them in following up on Argentina’s pledges under the UPR mechanism.

Finally, the UN leadership should not shy away from calling remaining challenges within the UN system by their name. It is understandable that Eliasson and others prefer to stress how “enthusiastic” staff members have greeted the initiative. Yet the action plan has also included new tasks for OCHR, without generating new funding. The creation of a common information system on serious human rights violations was hampered by different understandings of the objectives of protection and varying standards for the protection of victims and witnesses of violations. The new universal human rights training for all UN staff was seen as ineffective and beside the point by a number of observers within the UN system. Most troublingly, an independent expert panel on sexual abuse and exploitation in UN peace operations pointed to „gross institutional failure“ in the UN system, exposing a serious deficit in the organization’s internal culture (Eliasson has, in fact, made the link with Human Rights Up Front at a press conference). If Human Rights Up Front is to gain more traction with member states, Eliasson and his team should confront these challenges head-on.

What Netflix’s Rita can teach us about the challenges to implement the right to inclusive education

by Julia Biermann

The definition of inclusive education, as entailed in the General Comment on Article 24 UN CRPD, offers an ambitious vision for the global change of education systems. This vision, however, not only challenges “old ways” of segregated special schooling, but often also attempts of inclusive schooling. The Netflix series “Rita” vividly captures this conundrum and, even more, provokes viewers to ask: does inclusive schooling require to partially separate students with special needs from their peers in special classrooms?

According to the recently released General Comment on Article 24 UN CRPD, inclusive education demands that all educational environments include and serve the needs of all students. From a position of moral and legal authority, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines within this document the right to inclusive education accordingly as »a process that transforms culture, policy and practice in all educational environments to accommodate the differing needs of individual students, together with a commitment to remove the barriers that impede that possibility« (paragraph 9). Though setting clear expectations for the direction of educational change on a global scale, one could say that this vision is overloaded with vagueness. Too vague to alter the desired effects in schools?

Here, Rita comes into play; a free-spirited Danish teacher starring the eponymous Netflix series. Troubled by the intricacies of life and school, Rita fights courageously for her students, most often in rather unconventional ways. In terms of inclusion, this becomes evident in Season 3 which thematically deals with the politically backed, though troublesome, process of – as they say in the series – »integrating inclusion students with learning disabilities«. Not only is this process poorly resourced, it also pushes the limits of solidarity of nearly all involved parties; e.g. teachers, pupils and parents alike complain that »inclusion students« disrupt the class and thus slow down the other students‘ learning. To fight the resulting school-wide »inclusion blues«, Rita – a passionate inclusive education advocate – uses some of the little additional funding to create an extra space for the inclusion students in the school’s basement. This space allows them to retreat occasionally from the regular classroom. In addition, Rita collects donations for one student who wishes to return to a special school.

Given the actual circumstances, one could argue that this pragmatic solution responds to the needs of all students; in fact, the »inclusion students« are happy to have this space of their own. But, does this solution also correspond to the General Comment’s vision of transforming school culture at large? To be precise, does the occasional or partial separation of pupils with »special needs« respond to their individual needs, or does it, unnecessarily, establish barriers that prevent inclusive education?

Instead of answering this question, I want to make it the object of analysis, i.e. analysing the gap between inclusive education rhetoric and actual implementation practices in more detail. For that reason, I refer to the concept of the interregnum.

Originally used to denote the period of transition between two rulers, Gramsci has broadened and deepened this concept in his “Prison Notebooks”. Accordingly, the interregnum refers to the transition between two social orders that is characterised by morbid phenomena and a fundamental institutional crisis, summarised in the much-quoted key statement: ‘The old is dying, yet the new cannot be born’. (see also Zygmunt Baumann 2013)

It is not difficult to link this concept to the analysis at hand. Article 24 UN CRPD legally requires states to fundamentally change education systems and guarantee that all educational facilities can accommodate the needs of all students. This transition, however, »contains more friction than flows« (Levitt and Merry 2009, 448), because we witness globally the continuation or even expansion of special schools and classrooms (for Germany e.g. Klemm 2013). This trend is also reflected in the Committees Concluding Observations on State Party Reports. Overall, this paradoxical development points to an institutional crisis of schooling caused by the human right to inclusive education. For me, this institutional crisis can be traced to one particular aspect: The difficult role of (partial) separation in the wake of the inclusive imperative.

In conclusion, while segregated special schooling loses its legitimacy with Article 24 UN CPRD, the vision of inclusive education as ‘one classroom for all’ is far from being a reality. Even more, it has the power to plunge education systems into an institutional crisis. The question that remains is how to deal with this situation. For me, to openly acknowledge the “inclusion blues” would be a first step towards a deliberative process to realise inclusive education. Why? Because it would allow to advocate for inclusive education while at the same time accepting the challenges of implementing this fundamental human right – just as Rita did.

CfP: UN-Forschungskolloquium 2016

6. UN-Forschungskolloquium:
Die Vereinten Nationen und nichtstaatliche Akteure
22.-24. April 2016 am Walther-Schücking-Institut für Internationales Recht,
Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel

Veranstalter: AG Junge UN-Forschung in der Deutschen Gesellschaft für die Vereinten Nationen (DGVN)
Keynote: Prof. Dr. Andreas von Arnauld

Deadline für Abstracts: 14. Februar 2016
Deadline für Papiere: 1. April 2016
Deadline für Anmeldungen: 6. April 2016
Das Kolloquium steht allen interessierten Teilnehmer_innen offen, auch ohne eigenen Beitrag.


Einst gegründet als rein zwischenstaatliche Organisation, spielen nichtstaatliche Akteure in den Vereinten Nationen heute eine zunehmend bedeutende Rolle. Dabei haben die Vereinten Nationen verschiedene Wege gefunden, mit nichtstaatlichen Akteuren umzugehen. Zivilgesellschaftliche Organisationen können einen Beobachterstatus erhalten und sich in informelle Verhandlungen einbringen. Unternehmen sind Partner in der Entwicklungszusammenarbeit durch Public-private Partnerships geworden, und Prominente werden zu Goodwill-Botschaftern ernannt, welche die Aufmerksamkeit auf die Arbeit von Sonderorganisationen wie UNICEF legen sollen. Wissenschaftler_innen und Stiftungen fertigen Hintergrundberichte im Auftrag der Vereinten Nationen an. Früher hatten Befreiungsbewegungen wie die namibische SWAPO einen Beobachterstatus in den Vereinten Nationen, bis sie selbst die Regierungsgeschäfte übernahm – oder im Falle Palästinas von der Generalversammlung als „Nichtmitgliedsstaat“ anerkannt wurde, dessen Fahne mittlerweile auch am Hauptgebäude in New York weht. Der Sicherheitsrat erlässt gezielte Sanktionen gegen Friedensstörer_innen und Terrorist_innen und das Büro der Vereinten Nationen für Drogen und Kriminalität unterstützt Staaten bei der Bekämpfung organisierter Kriminalität – also transnational operierender Netzwerke verschiedenster Akteure. Diese Vielfalt macht deutlich: Eine einheitliche Behandlung der ganz verschiedenen Personen und Entitäten, die unter dem Begriff „nichtstaatliche Akteure“ gefasst werden können, ist nicht möglich.

Das 6. UN-Forschungskolloquium der Deutschen Gesellschaft für die Vereinten Nationen möchte sich mit der ganzen Vielfalt von nichtstaatlichen Organisationen und ihrem Verhältnis zu der Weltorganisation beschäftigen. Mögliche Fragen und Aspekte können dabei zum Beispiel die folgenden sein:

  • Welche unterschiedliche Formen und Formalisierungsgrade der Mitarbeit von nichtstaatlichen Organisationen gibt es im System der Vereinten Nationen?
  • Welche Folgen haben diese auf die Arbeit und die Effektivität der jeweiligen UN-Institution?
  • Welchen Einfluss haben nichtstaatliche Akteure auf Normsetzungsprozesse?
  • Welche demokratischen oder sonstigen legitimatorischen Anforderungen sind an die Beteiligungsmöglichkeiten nichtstaatlicher Akteure zu stellen?
  • Wie werden Governance-Leistungen zwischen staatlichen und nichtstaatlichen Akteuren im Rahmen der Vereinten Nationen geteilt, z.B. in der Entwicklungszusammenarbeit?
  • Inwiefern kann die Zusammenarbeit mit den Vereinten Nationen nichtstaatlichen Organisationen zusätzliche Legitimität bei ihren Zielgruppen verschaffen? Können beispielsweise gezielte Sanktionen auch zur Aufwertung von bewaffneten Akteuren in Friedensprozessen führen?

Organisatorischer Rahmen des Kolloquiums
Das 6. UN-Forschungskolloquium wird von den Mitgliedern der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Junge UN-Forschung in der Deutschen Gesellschaft für die Vereinten Nationen organisiert, deren Mitglieder aus den Fachbereichen Völkerrecht, Politikwissenschaft und Soziologie kommen. Das Kolloquium heißt Nachwuchswissenschaftler_innen und Studierende aller Fachrichtungen willkommen. Es bietet die Gelegenheit, Forschungs- und Studienarbeiten aus dem Bereich der Vereinten Nationen vorzustellen und zu diskutieren. Als besonders anregend hat sich erwiesen, dass die eingereichten Paper von Diskutant_innen vorgestellt werden und der jeweilige Beitrag im Anschluss intensiv diskutiert wird. Durch den interdisziplinären Blick werden gängige Definitionen hinterfragt und empirische Probleme neu betrachtet.

Autor_innen melden sich bitte bis zum 14. Februar 2016 mit einem Abstract (ca. 200-300 Wörter) zum Oberthema (oder einem verwandten Thema der UN-Forschung) an. Eine Zusage erfolgt bis zum 21. Februar 2016. Die Frist für Einreichung der fertigen Papiere (max. 5.000 Wörter) ist der 1. April 2016. Weitere interessierte Teilnehmer_innen können sich bis zum 6. April 2016 verbindlich auf unserer Webseite anmelden. Bei der Anmeldung geben bitte Autor_innen und Teilnehmer_innen an, ob sie die Rolle einer_s Diskutanten übernehmen möchten.

Einen Teilnahmebeitrag gibt es nicht. DGVN-Mitglieder können einen Fahrtkostenzuschuss beantragen (bei der Anmeldung angeben).

Das Anmeldeformular findet ihr hier.