How independent are independent human rights experts?

Independent human rights experts play a key role in the UN human rights system, as they are mandated to provide impartial assessments of human rights issues. This blogpost explains how the UN seeks to ensure their political independence, discusses the challenges to this process, and concludes by proposing certain measures that could be taken to strengthen it.

Diplomatie & internationale Akteure

The United Nations human rights section based in Geneva is dedicated to the goal of promoting the universal protection of human rights. This requires that allegations of human rights abuse are assessed in an independent and objective manner. State representatives are often no objective adjudicators of such allegations. Research shows that state-based human rights institutions are highly politicized, i.e., states often blame their rivals while turning a blind eye to human rights violations in allied countries. To overcome political bias, the UN human rights section provides mechanisms that are operated by so-called independent human rights experts. More specifically, the UN Special Procedures and the UN Treaty Bodies are composed of such experts mandated to monitor global human rights issues and to evaluate individual complaints.


Measures to protect the independence of UN human rights experts

Ideally, independent human rights experts would evaluate any allegation of human rights abuse on an equal basis, irrespective of where they occur and regardless of the political, national, ethnic, or religious identities of the actors involved. The UN has established several safeguards to ensure the independence of its human rights experts. First, UN human rights experts are required to have a high level of subject-related expertise – i.e., they are human rights lawyers or professors. Second, UN human rights experts are unpaid, and they serve in a personal capacity rather than as representatives of their country of citizenship. Third, UN human rights experts have temporary mandates, and they come from diverse countries.

Nevertheless, it remains challenging to preclude the risk of political bias. A key concern is that UN human rights experts are elected in highly political processes in which the states are strongly involved. Human rights experts in UN treaty bodies are nominated by their own states and elected by all states party to a human rights treaty. Special Procedures mandate holders are selected by a consultative group composed of five ambassadors of the member states in the UN Human Rights Council.


Empirical evidence on the independence of UN human rights experts

Despite these risks, research shows that UN human rights experts maintain at least a certain degree of independence from the states electing them and that their judgments tend to be relatively objective and well-informed. Compared to state-based human rights institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council, independent human rights experts are widely perceived to provide more accurate evaluations of the global human rights situation. This suggests that the UN’s safeguards against political bias are at least to a certain extent effective. However, political independence can never be taken for granted. For instance, a study shows that states allied to the United States tend to receive more positive reviews from the UN Committee against Torture, despite the fact that it is composed of ‘independent’ human rights experts.


Policy recommendations

Several measures could be taken to reinforce the independence of UN human rights experts. First, the influence of states on the selection process could be reduced by including different stakeholders such as civil society organizations and national human rights institutions in the electoral process. Second, external oversight bodies could be established to monitor the political independence of the UN’s human rights experts. Such external oversight bodies may be located, for instance, at independent institutions such as public universities. Third, the regional balance and gender balance of UN human rights experts should be improved as male citizens from Western Europe and the United States are still over-represented among Special Rapporteurs.

Overall, UN human rights experts play an invaluable role in the UN system as they tend to provide more objective assessments of human rights issues than state-based human rights institutions. However, the independence of human rights experts remains always delicate and contested. Strengthening and maintaining it is crucial because the UN’s power is closely linked to its credibility, which in turn hinges on its ability to treat all victims of human rights abuse equally.