BUT IS IT REALLY TRYING TO IMPROVE TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY IN THE SYSTEM, OR LEADING A CHARGE TO REIN IN THE RAPPORTEURS?
By Philippe Mottaz, with Jamil Chade
Thursday, October 14, 2021
The Financing of UN Experts in the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council: How UN experts are funded and influenced is a 52-page long report by the European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ) on the funding of the Human Rights Council Special Procedures. The document has created a firestorm at the Office of the UN High-Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and more broadly among the human rights community in Geneva.
The debate around the financial woes of the UN’s human rights mechanisms was, until today, largely confined to a specialist circle. It is now moving to a broader audience. It is also becoming increasingly political. New coalitions are being formed between authoritarian regimes and more traditional opponents of a strong multilateral system. All this comes at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions, and as the West and its allies push for more investigations into violations of international law and human rights.
Initially published in French, in September, by the ECLJ, an NGO which bases its actions on “the spiritual and moral values which are the common heritage of European peoples and the true source of individual freedom, political liberty and the rule of law”, the report argues in substance that the UN Special Rapporteurs are influenced by a limited group of private foundations that have “captured” the Special Procedures to systematically promote a liberal view of the world. The report also denounces a complete lack of financial transparency and accountability within the Special Procedures and at the OHCHR.
The palpable unease created by the report has two main causes. Firstly, while no one disputes that the funding of international organizations is a subject of legitimate debate and investigation, the methodology used by the authors of the report is being attacked by several Special Rapporteurs interviewed by the authors. “I do not consider that my responses were accurately and fairly reflected in the final document,” one of them wrote in an email to The Geneva Observer.
The other source of concern is political in nature: There are fears in the human rights community that beyond contributing to its stated claim of making the funding mechanisms more efficient, the report has a hidden agenda. The ECLJ adopts an openly critical view of international institutions and of global governance—a position aligned with those of senior members of the previous US administration such as Steve Bannon, Mike Pompeo (and his Commission on Unalienable Rights), or John Bolton (who regularly blasted the UN, suggesting that “it wouldn’t make a bit of a difference if the UN building in New York lost ten stories”).
The reference to the previous US administration is not out of context here, as the ECLJ’s global partner is the American Centre for Law and Justice (ACLJ), an outlet led by Jay Sekulow, Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer.
The foreword to the ECLJ study opens with these words: “In the age of globalization, international institutions are assuming increasing responsibility and wielding considerable power. Decision-making centers are moving away from the people and their historical capital cities to a few new capitals of global governance [italics ours], be they financial or political, notably in New York and Geneva. By moving, power changes its nature: it wants to be rational and global, and therefore detaches itself from the expression of the (supposedly irrational) will of the people [italics ours], as well as from the old distinction between public and private actors, in favor of a new distinction between local and global actors. […] Private global actors have an explicit political purpose. They are large foundations and NGOs that have not only considerable resources but high-level expertise and, more importantly, a general liberal and global worldview.”
Beyond its introduction, the report itself proceeds to offer a detailed mapping of the current funding of the UN mandate-holders—who receive no financial compensation for their work, except per diems to cover their expenses.
According to the ECLJ, between 2015 and 2019, 40% of the Special Procedures budget came from additional, extra-budgetary funding from a few states, NGOs, and private foundations.
Most of this private funding, the report states, “comes from a small number of foundations and NGOs, in particular the Gates, Ford, Open Society, McArthur, and Oak foundations, but also from a few companies such as Microsoft. […] International organizations can become dependent on private foundations and NGOs. This confusion is an essential aspect of global governance. […] This phenomenon, whereby a private actor exerts influence on, or within, a public institution, has been called ‘capture’ and ‘privatization’ in social sciences."
“[…]Indeed, while the regular budget of the Special Procedures amounts to nearly $68 million between 2015 and 2019, almost $20 million more was voluntarily paid to the Special Procedures as a whole, mainly by the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States”, the report reveals.
During the same period, a few states also paid an additional $14.6 million to cover the expenses (including hiring assistants and researchers) of 51 of the 121 experts in the Office, and 37 of those experts also reported having received 134 direct financial payments, amounting to almost $11 million, for the same purpose.
The ECLJ discloses that experts received more than $5.5 million from private foundations and NGOs, of which more than $2 million went directly from the Ford Foundation to nine mandate-holders, and $1.5 was donated by George Soros’ Open Society Foundations to six mandate-holders. Four mandate holders received funds from both foundations.
Higher education institutions also pitched in. $1,142,757 was contributed by 49 universities, including the University of British Columbia, the University of Pretoria, the University of Minnesota Law School, and Toronto’s York University.
Finally, quoting from the Special Procedures annual reports, the ECLJ highlights that 36 out of 121 experts received 125 in-kind donations between 2015 and 2019.
The ECLJ writers went beyond the public record and interviewed close to thirty former and current UN Special Rapporteurs in the writing of their study. They take pains to explain that the report “does not purport to reflect the opinion of all the experts interviewed.” But that didn’t prevent them from reaching a conclusion that “as the result of this study, it appears that the propositions to fund and directly support mandate-holders is often aimed at guiding their action. […] It, therefore, significantly undermines their independence. Almost all the experts interviewed share this observation; some of them used the word ‘corruption’ to describe this phenomenon.”
The main recommendation made by the ECLJ that “any extra-budgetary funding for the Special Procedures must be paid directly to the OHCHR, and any direct funding going directly to mandate-holders must be banned,” led to an extremely heated debate when the report was presented by the ECLJ at a meeting of the Coordination Committee of the UN Experts with NGOs.
Former Special Rapporteurs denounced “spurious attacks” on the Special Procedures and questioned the true purpose of the report. Meanwhile, C-Fam (Center for Family and Human Rights), a pro-life organization, offered support to the ECLJ, accusing the critics of “a Soviet-style reprisal on the report.”
The first charge against the document and its main writer, Grégor Puppink, a conservative human rights expert, was publicly leveled in August of this year by Martin Scheinin, a former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism. Calling the study “a dishonest attack on UN human rights mechanisms,” in the blog of the European Journal of International Law, Scheinin offered a blistering critique of the ECLJ conclusions:
“The references to ‘almost all’ or ‘some’ or ‘one’ remain vague and not identifiable. There are errors in the report in little things and in fundamental matters. The answers received are not accounted for, but the reader is offered a set of unfounded generalizations that only represent the views of the author of the report but that in ambiguous language are, from a reader’s perspective, attributed to the special rapporteurs, or ‘almost all’ of them,” he wrote. “The report claims, for instance, that special rapporteurs would personally and ‘directly’ receive ‘cash’ from donors, that universities would create ‘special bank accounts’ for them, and that there would be no accounting. This is all false.”
For Martin Scheinin, “The trust special rapporteurs may have extended in engaging with the authors were [sic] abused to serve a very different mission than now ex post facto is clearly expressed in the report. This report is a sad example of the post-truth world we live in, where the presentation of ‘alternative facts’ is fine, even when one gets caught, because falsehoods serve a political purpose that may prove successful.”
The Geneva Observer reached out to several current or former mandate-holders to find out if they felt their answers to the ECLJ had been misrepresented in the report.
“I do not consider that my responses were accurately and fairly reflected in the final document,” Ariel Dulitzky, former Chair of the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances, told us in an email, adding “however, I share some of the recommendations of the report, particularly those related to the need for more transparency and fairness in the distribution of resources to the different mandate holders.”
Asked about their reaction to the report, two former UN mandate-holders (who had not been contacted by the ECLJ) told The G|O under condition of anonymity that they agreed with some of the criticism about the funding mechanism and with the need to deal urgently with the issue, as not addressing it leaves the Special Procedures vulnerable to precisely the kind of criticism contained in the ECLJ report.
However, they also expressed fear that the true purpose of the study was to create a pretext for reining in the Special Rapporteurs, and they share the conclusion drawn by Martin Scheinin when he wrote: “I am sure authoritarian regimes will not miss the opportunity to discredit the system of special procedures of the Human Rights Council or to impose new constraints upon the ability of the special rapporteurs to perform their function, and to do so by invoking this report. Human rights will suffer, but someone will win.”
The impact and eventual effect of the ECLJ report remain difficult to assess, particularly in regard to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.
“At this stage, the question is not whether the report is good or bad, but what are the threats and opportunities that it creates and for whom,” one well-informed HRC watcher told The G|O. “Anything that makes it more difficult for the SPs to function will not be welcome by the Office, and if a discussion about SP financial arrangements is opened up, other discussions about the SPs will also be opened. On the other hand, like any bureaucracy, the Office likes to control, and allegations about parallel financial arrangements in the report create an opening for Michelle Bachelet to seek to exert greater control over arrangements to support individual SPs.”
For its part, in a written statement to The G|O issued through its spokesperson Jeremy Laurence, the UN Human Rights Office brushed off the report’s criticism: “There is full transparency with respect to funding for all of the experts working under Special Procedures.
“All of the mandates have a duty to report back to the Human Rights Council on their activities, and the UN Human Rights Office also publishes an annual report detailing their funding from the regular budget and voluntary contributions. Regular budget resources cover mandated activities of mandate holders and are distributed evenly across mandates. Voluntary contributions from states and other stakeholders are also received by the Office to support Special Procedures."
“In addition, the Special Procedures themselves decided in 2015 to report annually on additional resources they receive directly from external sources.”
The one point of agreement seems to be that the issue of funding must now be urgently addressed. However, if the report creates an opening for the Office to again assert the need for greater regular UN budgetary financing of the human rights programs, the discussion will have to be conducted (like everything else in the UN system) against the backdrop of competing financial demands to solve the many pressing challenges at hand, from COVID-19 to climate change and the SDGs.
Philippe Mottaz, with Jamil Chade.
Editorial assistance: Ciara O'Donoghue