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A group of academics from Birmingham Law School have written a letter to both the UK Permanent Representative to the UN and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, concerning the consequences of cutbacks for human rights.

It read:

We are deeply concerned by the financial shortfall facing the United Nations which has resulted in the postponement of the CEDAW, CRC, Human Rights Committee and other sessions scheduled for the final quarter of 2019.[1] We also note that this shortfall has affected the ability of the Committees to implement their mandate under the optional protocol procedures.

This comes as a heavy blow in the wake of global ongoing backlash against human rights, and particularly the rights of the most vulnerable. We understand that cutbacks have occurred due in large part to delays by Member States in paying their contributions. We are deeply concerned both by this financial situation and by the de-prioritisation of state accountability for human rights.

The UK has sought to position itself as a human rights leader and in this respect we note the FCO’s single departmental plan contains an objective to ‘promote UK interests and values’[2] which it seeks to achieve through championing ‘democracy, human rights and the rule of law and address[ing] global challenges’. The treaty bodies which now see their work curtailed have been central and longstanding voices on the connected issues such as modern slavery, girls’ education and freedom of speech.

We are currently seeing tremendous opposition to human rights on a global scale. Women’s sexual and reproductive health rights are being legislated away. Gender-based violence continues at tragic and unacceptable levels. Ethno-nationalism and religious extremism are emboldened by sensationalist media pushing xenophobic narratives. The very existence of LGBTQI people is in many places considered a threat to the fabric of society. The work of these human rights committees is vital in the evolution of human rights and anti-discrimination law and setting international best practice standards that are routinely drawn on by judges, lawyers, legislators, national policy-makers and form the backbone of civil society’s advocacy in legal and political forums.

The UN’s financial situation and the consequent cutbacks not only undermine the aims of the international human rights system but jeopardies the efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The considerable efforts put into aligning the Sustainable Development Goals with human rights are threatened by this further weakening of the treaty body system and its failure to sufficiently counter the rise of populism.

For civil society organisations, the treaty bodies are an increasingly rare space in which they can articulate and find support for the struggles they face in their home countries. The committees can shine an international spotlight on overlooked aspects of equality and provide recommendations to address grave and systemic abuses of human rights. The work of civil society has long been included and valued in these fora, presenting a clear picture of the realities on the ground, enabling the Committees to hold states parties accountable and creating positive ripple effects throughout the globe. At a time when civil society spaces are shrinking in many national contexts, it is all the more crucial that impunity for human rights violations can be challenged at the UN level.

It is also important to note the long-term impacts that are likely to follow from the current under-resourcing. The treaty bodies have long been over-burdened and in many cases have worked intensively over nearly a decade to clear backlogs and develop more efficient working methods. The current situation will erase that progress and mean the timely effective monitoring of present-day concerns will prevented by delay.

Now more than ever, we need to see immediate action. We are requesting that to strengthen the UK’s global leadership you advocate that all Member States make swift payment in full of its UN membership fees, as well as joining us in urging the UN to:

  • prioritise funds dedicated to ensure the operational mandate of treaty bodies
  • ensure the CEDAW review sessions will not be jeopardised by the funding shortfall
  • plan for extra budgetary funding to address the current shortfall
  • prioritise sustainable financing for the treaty bodies in the agenda and ongoing deliberations of the Human Rights Council and General Assembly

We are at a critical juncture. It is important that the UK is a leader in advocating for human rights accountability not only in our own state, but globally through the UN.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Meghan Campbell
Dr Ben Warwick
Professor Kate Bedford
Professor Fiona de Londras
Dr Kieren McGuffin
Dr Sebastian Eskauriatza
Dr Natasa Mavronicola
Dr Mohammad Shahabuddin

[1] Letter from Ms Bachelet to Chairpersons of the United Nations Human Rights Treaty Bodies, dated 30 April 2019.