On 4 November 2021, the Global Justice Academy together with the Edinburgh Centre for Global and International Law hosted their first in-person seminar for the 2021-22 academic year at Edinburgh Law School. Professor Rhona K.M. Smith, who served two three-year terms as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Cambodia, engaged the audience with her reflections on UN Special Procedures. She is a Professor of International Human Rights and was head of Newcastle Law School at Newcastle University from 2016 to 2020.
To ground her reflections, she opened with an overview on the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, and the distinctions between country and thematic mandates. She took the audience through the procedures for appointing the mandate holders and gave insight into gender and geographical balances and imbalances. Many in the audience were shocked to hear about the amount of time a UN Special Rapporteur dedicates to their mandate and particularly in light of the fact it is an unpaid position. Prof Smith critically reflected on the reasons given by the UN Human Rights Council for maintaining the unremunerated status of these roles. The Human Rights Council asserts that this gives independence to the experts, however, Prof Smith recognized that, in reality, not all experts or potential experts could afford this privilege. Ultimately, she said ‘you need money to live’. This subject stimulated a lively discussion later in the session.
The core of Prof Smith’s discussion focused on her behind-the-scenes experiences as a Special Rapporteur. She elaborated the three main roles of UN Special Procedures: advising, monitoring and reporting. Each of these roles serves a specific purpose in relation to fulfilling the mandate and each is enabled or limited in direct relation to the resources allocated to facilitate the work.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) plays a fundamental role is supporting the UN Special Procedures mandates. Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, Prof Smith travelled on missions to Cambodia twice a year and reinforced the importance of communicating with the country through the OHCHR. Security measures were of upmost importance as every UN Special Procedure faces common death threats and other harassment. During missions, Prof Smith was able to gather information on the ground and meet with high-level government actors in order to develop a multilayered picture of human rights in Cambodia. She reflected on how she could make the most out of these visits because she knew the country already since she had lived there before being appointed to the UN mandate. During these meetings, she highlighted situations that would entail human rights violations, and suggested concrete actions that State actors could adopt to protect, respect and fulfil the human rights of people living in Cambodia.
In the end, Prof Smith reinforced that being a UN Special Procedure was both ‘a huge honour and an amazing challenge’. On the one side, she was able to deepen her knowledge of human rights in practice and steer the improvement of the human rights for Cambodians. On the other, she faced the challenge of becoming a public figure in Cambodia and the risks associated with that publicity.
In closing the event, Prof Smith narrated a day in the shoes of a UN Special Procedure during a mission and reflected on how her experience contributed to her human rights teaching. Her frankness and honesty helped the audience understand what it means to be a UN Special Rapporteur. While there are clearly challenges, the rewards in assuming such a role within the UN, she demonstrated the practical importance that UN Special Procedures play in advancing the global protection, promotion and respect for human rights.
This post was written by Valentina Rioseco Vallejos. Valentina is a Chilean lawyer who holds an LLM in Human Rights from the University of Edinburgh. She is currently studying a PhD in Law, focused on incorporating a human rights approach to irregular migration. Valentina is a Research Assistant for the Global Justice Academy.