Who can we rely on to protect human rights and ensure accountability?

June 21, 2021

Seven traditional communicators from the Wolof and Mandinka tribes of The Gambia who provide support to women who are victims of gender-based violence.

© State of MIC Multimedia

Who do you call for help when your rights are infringed upon?

In many countries, your first call might be to the police or a lawyer. But in some parts of the world, this is more complicated. For example, who do you ask for help or redress when the state or a powerful corporation committed the violation against your rights? Or the police or courts, aren’t fair or functioning?

Or what if you can’t afford to seek help or there is no one to provide it where you live?

Or what if services are inaccessible to you or you don’t speak or read the national language?

This is the reality for many people around the world. And these obstacles are further exacerbated in times of crisis.

To combat these challenges, the international community has mechanisms to protect human rights and strengthen accountability. National human rights institutions are independent state bodies that have a mandate to promote and protect human rights. Although their specific roles and responsibilities vary, these institutions monitor the human rights situation and most receive and investigate complaints and report concerns to the public and international human rights mechanisms. Where these institutions exist, they can play a crucial role in holding governments accountable. A recent study of the role of these institutions during COVID-19 showed many examples of ways that they addressed human rights challenges. Many created closer links with decision-makers and provided vital advice to governments to ensure that human rights were respected, protected, and fulfilled, as well as worked with civil society to provide essential information to people in hard-to-reach areas.

International mechanisms are another important entry point for upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process is where states discuss steps they have taken to advance human rights, and accept recommendations made to improve the human rights situation in their country by other Member States. UNDP supports governments in reporting to the review and implementing its recommendations. In Thailand, following the Universal Periodic Review’s recommendations in 2016, UNDP is helping the government adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a framework for preventing and remedying the negative impact that businesses can have on human rights, and the most widely recognized international standard for responsible business conduct.  

Mechanisms of accountability that are nationally owned with the support of the international community can also be an effective way to pursue justice, especially following gross and systemic human rights violations. In 2020, with support from UNDP and MINUSCA, the courts in the Central African Republic found five anti-Balaka leaders guilty of several charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Human rights defenders also play a vital role in ensuring that those in power are held accountable, including by bearing witness to violations, and lobbying governments. We saw this in 2020 with on-line and in person protests rallying against systemic racism, climate change, and gender-based violence as well as action in support of labour unions, all often despite COVID-19 restrictions. While their specific purposes vary, these can be seen as part of a global movement for justice, taking a stand against inequality, oppression, and impunity.   

At the same time, human rights defenders are often vulnerable to intimidation and reprisals. In 2019, Front Line Defenders recorded 304 human rights defenders killed. Working together, human rights defenders, national human rights institutions, and civil society can advocate for legal protections, systems for reporting violations, and raising awareness of the dangers human rights defenders face.

The steady and steep global decline of respect for democratic principles over the past ten years continued in 2020 as the effects of COVID-19 pandemic made challenges associated with accountability for human rights violations more visible and exacerbated. In order to respond to these deep rooted issues, especially as we recover from COVID-19 and move towards 2030, we need to strengthen accountability mechanisms at every level, to deal with the injustices of today and protect the rights of future generations.