Editorial: New Data Show UN Human Rights System May Reflect Regional, Not Universal Rights

By | September 14, 2017

NEW YORK, September 15 (C-Fam) Universality is the cornerstone of human rights law and a central focus of the United Nations. But when small groups of experts and wealthy countries attempt to redefine international human rights, the entire framework is discredited.

In recent decades, a few countries and have used the UN system to redefine international human rights to include such controversial notions as a right to abortion and “sexual rights.”  While no UN human rights treaty includes such concepts, the expert groups that monitor compliance with these treaties have pressured countries hundreds of times to change their laws and policies to accept and promote them.

Within the UN system, there are different mechanisms to promote human rights.  In the case of treaty monitoring bodies, experts speak to nations. In the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), nations speak to each other, and every country receives recommendations from every other nation once every four years.

A comparison of the latest data on these two mechanisms reveals that the controversial social agenda on abortion and sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) is promoted by a small group of countries—many from the same region and most of them wealthy.  These same views are reflected by experts on treaty monitoring bodies, more so than the universally-accepted understanding of those treaties.

The oldest and most respected treaty monitoring body, the Human Rights Committee, recently published a draft comment encouraging an interpretation of the right to life to include abortion and euthanasia. While this does not reflect international consensus, and is inconsistent with previous interpretations of that right, it is highly consistent with the recent work of the Committee, which has pressured countries on abortion and SOGI in an ever-increasing majority of cases.

Abortion and SOGI are also present in the UPR recommendations, but with a distinct lack of universality. As of the completion of the second UPR cycle, 23 countries accounted for 90 percent of over 1,500 instances of pressure on SOGI.  Fifteen of those countries are in the Western European & Others geopolitical group, and none are from the African or Asian groups.  Within regional groups, a few individual countries accounted for large numbers of recommendations on SOGI— Czechia and Slovenia issued 86 percent of all SOGI pressure from Eastern Europe.   In contrast, all but fifty of the UN’s 193 countries have remained silent on SOGI in the UPR.

The UPR demonstrates a high level of commitment by governments to uphold human rights: approximately 73 percent of all recommendations from the first two cycles were accepted by their recipient countries.  In the second cycle, countries that rejected all SOGI pressure accepted almost 71 percent of recommendations unrelated to SOGI, suggesting that skepticism about SOGI as a subset of human rights does not imply skepticism toward human rights overall.

Nevertheless, attempts to redefine universal human rights principles by an elite few risks jeopardizing the full realization of universally accepted human rights for all.  The more that the inclusion of general references to human rights in UN resolutions is seen as opening the gateway to a flood of controversial novel “rights,” the less universal the entire concept of rights will appear. This only gives more excuses to governments who already fail to ensure the most basic—and universally agreed-upon—human rights for their people.

Issues: UN, Human Rights, treaty bodies, international law, Human Rights Committee, UPR, Human Rights Council


Image: Human Rights Council chamber