UN funding crisis, coincidence or hidden agenda?

Newsletter, Shrinking Space for Civil Society

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Ran by independent human rights experts, the 55 United Nations Special Procedures play a key role in clarifying the relationship between human rights, their protection and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. The Special Procedures experts (sometimes known as “Special Rapporteurs”) are the “eyes and ears” of the UN system, approachable by civil society organisations and activists directly on the ground. The latest example is the focus on “reprisals against defenders who have cooperated with the mandate holder” adopted by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defender, Mrs Mary Lawlor.

And yet, as the world is facing a potential increase in human rights violations due to the ongoing sanitary and economic crisis, the United Nations Special Procedures are currently lacking funding.

While it is certain that states financially struggle to contain the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of them may see this situation as an opportunity to further hamper the work of the UN Special Procedures and renege on their human rights commitments.

The already fiery criticism of the multilateral structures, embodied by several politicians at European and global levels, has found a key ally in the pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis has had a considerable impact on the work of the UN system with the postponement, cancellation and scaling-down of nearly all sessions scheduled for 2020.

This year, marked by the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, the UN has announced the postponement of an already scheduled fact-finding mission in Libya to document human rights abuses and funding cuts for 300 health centres in Yemen. All UN actors are facing major challenges due to the combined effect of an anti-multilateral discourse and the pandemic. But the lack of funding to United Nations Special Procedures will further shrink the space for the dialogue between civil society and Special Rapporteurs, and more generally the whole UN system. Some states have constantly tried to interfere in that dialogue by delaying or blocking accreditation of certain organisations or by preventing them to engage in international fora.

The current situation offers UN Member States the opportunity to exploit the pandemic for political gains. The legitimate sanitary measures put in place to contain the spread of the virus could for instance be used to prevent field visits or bilateral engagements between Special Rapporteurs and civil society.

By cutting their financial support to Special Rapporteurs, some UN Member States are going a step further in closing the space for human rights: after targeting independent civil society within their national borders, they are now targeting institutional actors and their international mandates. The overall aim is simple: toppling down the whole system of human rights protection.