Assessing United Nations Efficacy and Politics: The Case of Sierra Leone

By Ra’Phael Davis


A major debate about the United Nations is whether the organization has been effective in promoting human rights.  Overall, the UN does much to promote human rights around the world through the Human Rights Council (HRC), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and the Special Court of Sierra Leone. Despite some problems within politics and enforcement, the UN is effective overall for the promotion of human rights consciousness.

The role of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is to promote respect for human rights around the world, deal with violation of human rights, appoint experts to assess human rights practices in countries, and provide recommendations to member states on how to improve the condition of human rights within their nation [1].It is important to note that prior to the establishment of the council, there was a Human Rights Commission that was largely ineffective because states that were members on the council were some of the states that committed gross human rights abuses. [2]

This council has been effective in promoting human rights in two ways.  First, countries that engage in frequent human rights abuses face heightened scrutiny from non-governmental organizations and lobbyists during their applications to sit on the HRC. [3] Second, the council sends special rapporteurs to investigate and help improve the record and condition of human rights. These rapporteur visits can lead to positive results in reducing crime and conflict, or more generally assuring that people can enjoy their rights. In Brazil, for example, the government forced over a thousand members of the Quilombos community to relocate to another part of the country. [4] In this process, the government promised the Quilombos 15 hectares of land, but it was distributed sparingly, and land titles were awarded to only 11.8% of Quilombos that filed for them. [5] After a visit from a special rapporteur and a recommendation for the government to comply with international human rights and international humanitarian law, the President of Brazil created a group to work specifically on issues related to the Quilombos community’s sustainable development. Also following this recommendation came special sources of public funding and financing intended to level the playing field for the Quilombos once more. [6]

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is tasked with supporting human rights through peacekeeping missions and commenting on the conditions of human rights and, like the Human Rights Council, investigate and report on human rights. Unlike the HRC, the Office of the High Commissioner has had less success in promoting human rights. Former high commissioner Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein took the mandate of his position at “face value”, meaning that he was willing to blatantly point out human rights abuses. When Prince Hussein announced that he would not be running for re-election as high commissioner, he stated that it was because of his belief that doing the job well and also doing what it takes to gain the support necessary for re-election were incompatible. [7]

Prince Hussein routinely called out countries for the condition of human rights and the rise of autocracy in the world. This is evident in his condemnation of the Trump administration’s practice of child separation at the shared border of Mexico and the U.S., Russia’s constant vetoing of any resolution related to Syrian issues, and China’s refusal of human rights monitoring in their country. While Prince Hussein’s leadership stuck to the task of high commissioner well, some criticize and/or critique it, saying that naming and shaming can be separated from monitoring and technical assistance. While these problems with the OHCHR exists, the office is still effective, seeing that it helps staff special procedures and special rapporteurs which have demonstrated the ability to improve key issues related to human rights around the world. [8]

The Special Court of Sierra Leone was established through an agreement between the UN and the government of Sierra Leone to investigate and prosecute people that were most responsible for the conflict in the country between 1996 and 2002. This establishment was after the UN’s Security Council found that Charles Taylor, the President of Liberia was a key figure fueling the conflict in Sierra Leone; the country decided that it wanted Taylor punished for his actions . [9] The court does a good job of promoting human rights as far as representing the wishes of the victims/survivors of conflict, but its mechanisms for actually serving justice is weak. The special court, like the ICC, has no power of law enforcement aside from the cooperation of nation-states. A weakness of the special court is that it could not serve justice on its own terms. Learning the perpetrator’s whereabouts and obtaining requires that states use their own forces including political power to force the criminal into custody. This weakness, however, is not one that erases the good that comes of the court: justice would not be bought about over human rights violations if the court had not begun an investigation.

Overall, there is significant overlap between the Human Rights Council, the Office of the High Commissioner, and the Special Court of Sierra Leone. Although each “machine” functions differently, they all work to promote and improve human rights. The HRC collaborates with governments on a grassroots level, the OHCHR points out abuses and provides resources for improvement, and the Special Court of Sierra Leone investigates and punishes crime. Despite the differences in function, all of these parts of the UN require that a government is willing and able to cooperate. While this is good on the part of the governments that want to cooperate, it means that countries who do not wish to comply hinder these organs, esp. HRC and OHCHR, from promoting human rights. Still, it would be an overreach to characterize the UN’s endeavors to promote human rights as ineffective because there are problems with the system.

Ra’phael Davis is a junior at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock where he studies Philosophy and International Studies. He is the journal’s Correspondent for African Affairs from 2018-19.

  Works Cited

[1] Becker, Jo. Campaigning for justice: human rights advocacy in practice. Stanford University Press, 2012.

[2] Ibid, 60.

[3] Ibid, 62, 66, 68.

[4] Ibid, 84.

[5] Ibid, 86.

[6] Ibid, 87.

[7] The Job of Human Rights Chief Isn’t What You Think – Foreign Policy. Accessed 30 Sept. 2018.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Becker, 114.

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