Briefing Note: UNHCR, Human Rights and Refugee Protection
|Publisher||UN High Commissioner for Refugees|
|Publication Date||1 July 1997|
|Cite as||UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Briefing Note: UNHCR, Human Rights and Refugee Protection, 1 July 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b32310.html [accessed 22 May 2013]|
UNHCR's traditional approach to human rights has been a cautious one, primarily because of a concern that greater activism and identification with the growing human rights mechanisms of the United Nations might lead to a politicisation of UNHCR activities. This might, in turn, compromise our ability to work with our government counterparts and to deliver under our mandate.
In the past decade, this approach has given way to a more constructive engagement by UNHCR in human rights issues and mechanisms at the international level and, to some extent, the regional level. This development arises from lessons learned during the increased use of interagency responses in complex emergencies and the heightened concern for prevention of refugee flows, both of which argue for a human rights approach.
In fact, the level of participation and interest has grown to the extent that the UNHCR's Senior Management Committee has approved a policy paper on UNHCR and Human Rights which will explain UNHCR's interaction with the human rights sphere in three areas:
- In setting and using human rights standards in its work,
- In the generation and use of human rights information,
- In collaborating with the UN human rights mechanisms.
This note explains some of the human rights liaison activities carried on or co-ordinated by the Division of International Protection, and how these activities can help us to protect refugees.
Human Rights Related Activities
1. Liaison with UN Human Rights Mechanisms:
The human rights liaison function within the Division of International Protection has been actively involved for a number of years with the UN human rights bodies. The principal bodies and our activities are:
- Commission on Human Rights - attendance, collecting and disseminating reports and information; reporting to HQ colleagues and the field; liaison with the special procedures of the Commission, including Special Rapporteurs, Working Groups, Independent Experts, etc.
- Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities - attendance, collecting and disseminating reports and information on issues of relevance to our mandate; reporting to HQ colleagues and the field; liaison with the special procedures of the Commission, including Special Rapporteurs, Working Groups, etc. Particular attention has been paid in recent years to the freedom of movement issue and particularly the right to return.
- Human Rights Treaty Bodies: sharing information from the field with, and disseminating observations of Human Rights Committee (HRC); Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC); Committee Against Torture (CAT); Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR); and Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The Division of International Protection also intends to extend its liaison activities with the Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which is primarily based in New York.
During 1996 the UNHCR published:
- an expanded Collection of International Instruments and Other Legal Texts concerning Refugees and Displaced Persons
- a training module (in two parts) on Human Rights and Refugee Protection
- a reference manual for UNHCR staff: International standards applicable to the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons
- the REFWORLD CD-ROM (issued by the Centre for Documentation and Research), which contains an impressive collection of human rights standards, including, as of July 1997, greatly enhanced information about the United Nations human rights treaty bodies.
3. Other New Initiatives:
- Education for Peace, Human Rights and Conflict Resolution pilot projects. These initiatives, jointly promoted by the Division of International Protection and the Division of Operational Support, are designed to introduce human rights standards and ideas into the formal and non-formal education and training offered to children and adults in refugee and returnee communities by UNHCR and its partners. The aim is to promote respect for human rights values and encourage use of peaceful means to resolve disputes.
- Opening of the Liaison Office in Strasbourg. The Office maintains contact with Council bodies, including the human rights mechanisms, and promotes the use of the standards in the European Convention on Human Rights to protect refugees. Together with the Division of International Protection, LO is planning a series of training events for European protection staff and representatives to expose them to the workings of the European human rights system.
- Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In collaboration with the Centre for Human Rights and other UN agencies, UNHCR will hold activities to commemorate this important human rights occasion. Currently Headquarters is planning to host a panel discussion during 1998 on refugees and IDPs, and will hold a series of lectures at UNHCR on human rights issues of interest to UNHCR staff. Other activities will be developed over the year and a IOM/FOM has been distributed to encourage field offices to plan activities to commemorate the Anniversary.
Relevance to Field Offices
Some UNHCR staff may question the relevance of these human rights activities, and this emphasis on human rights standards, to their day-to-day work. In fact, the use of human rights standards and mechanisms can be very useful both in the direct protection of refugees and in negotiations with and training of government officials and NGO partners. Human rights awareness and training can be useful in refugee protection in a number of ways, some of which are outlined below:
- to deal with individual cases of threatened refoulement, where an asylum seeker has been refused refugee status under the 1951 Convention and implementing legislation, and makes a successful application to the CAT or the European Commission/Court of Human Rights under the non-refoulement provisions in the instruments governing those bodies;
- to obtain better decision-making and more active protection of refugees by government officials and the judiciary - for example, when judges are trained in human rights law and the interlinkages between refugee protection and human rights are pointed out to them, their use of human rights concepts in their decisions on refugee-related issues can have an immediate and positive result for individual cases and eventually for government policy;
- to support and reiterate, from a human rights perspective, UNHCR concerns or proposals by having them raised with government delegations by a treaty body when it considers the state's periodic report - for example, the treaty body may remind the government that detention of asylum seekers should be done only in exceptional cases; or that it has an obligation to ensure that the application of its laws do not result in creating stateless persons;
- to provide the opportunity for UNHCR to influence the development of international human rights law in ways that will positively affect the protection of refugees at the national level - for example, the Sub-Commission this year is considering a draft declaration prohibiting unlawful population transfer and this standard may in future be used by UNHCR to condemn the ethnic cleansing activities which so adversely affect our work.
It is therefore important for all UNHCR protection staff to be fully conversant with basic human rights principles and to have a working knowledge of the principal human rights treaty mechanisms, both international and regional. In this way, the complementarity of human rights law and refugee law can best be understood and effectively utilised.