Books by Dr. Rosa Freedman – Failing to Protect : The UN and the Politicisation of Human Rights (Hurst Publishers forthcoming May 2014). The United Nations Human Rights Council: A critique and early assessment (Routledge/2013). Article in PDF (Download)
On Politicisation of Human Rights – Dr. Rosa Freedman, Lecturer, Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham – in an exclusive interview with Mark Ulyseas
01. (a) How do you define human rights?
That is very much a loaded question, although I doubt that it was intended to be one. There are three broad categories of human rights, and there remains much debate as to what counts as a ‘human right’. The way that human rights scholars, and indeed practitioners, define human rights often is tied in closely with their ideological stances on those categories. Those categories are Civil and Political Rights; Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and Collective or Third Generation Rights. The ideological, political and sometimes legal divisions between those groups of rights are something to which I will return later.
To answer your question more generally, and rather simplistically, human rights are something that belong to all individuals by virtue of those people being human. They are rights that individuals hold in relation to countries or sometimes other actors. There are some agreed upon fundamental rights that cannot be limited and from which countries cannot derogate in any circumstances. Most rights can be limited within certain circumstances, but the rights themselves are not affected only the scope of their application.
The starting point in terms of the modern era of human rights is the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although of course there has been significant expansion and codification of those rights since that time.
01. (b) And is the United Nations Human Rights Council (created in 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights) simply old wine in a new bottle?
The Human Rights Council replaced the Commission on Human Rights, which was widely perceived as having ‘failed’. Of course, that is a rather simplistic assessment. The Commission achieved many great things in terms of developing, promoting and protecting human rights. The Commission was an intergovernmental body, and as such it always was going to be politicised. When countries send government delegates to represent them at a body then, of course, those ambassadors and other representatives will be guided to some extent by national political objectives. Problems arise, however, when national or regional aims unrelated to human rights outweigh the task at hand – that is, protecting and promoting human rights. Over the Commission’s final decade, the body became increasingly politicised to the extent that it lacked credibility or legitimacy. Many countries sought membership of the Commission in order to protect themselves or their allies from scrutiny of their poor human rights records. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when the Commission elected Libya (then under Colonel Gaddafi’s regime) as its Chair. But the body had been politicised in many other ways prior to that event.
The Council was created during a time when there was a great drive and desire to reform the UN human rights machinery. The Council was given more mechanisms to protect and promote human rights – in particular the ability to convene Special Sessions to address grave or crisis situations, and the Universal Periodic Review to which we shall return later. It was also required to meet frequently throughout the year and for no less than 10 weeks in total. The Council was also provided with a new legal mandate, under General Assembly Resolution 60/251, which aimed to reduce politicisation. It was heralded as ‘the dawn of a new era’. Sadly, that dream has not materialised in reality.
The Council, like its predecessor, has achieved some very good things. We ought not to lose sight of the very many accomplishments of both bodies. The development and codification of international human rights law was driven by the Commission. Many of the things that we take for granted today are in place because of that body’s work. It was also instrumental in promoting human rights and ensuring that countries implemented those rights within their national territories. The Council, similarly, plays a significant role in the continuing development of rights and in the promotion of those rights in countries across the world. It provides a forum for states to discuss human rights issues; to provide peer-support and advice to one another; to enable capacity building and technical assistance to states; and to fact-find, report and provide recommendations on human rights situations.
But the Council is hampered by politicisation, and that affects its ability to adhere to its founding principles of non-selectivity, impartiality and lack of bias. What do I mean by that? The body is driven in its work by the countries that sit on it as members. 47 countries sit at the Council– just under a quarter of UN member states. The seats are divided into proportionate geographic representation. There are 13 African states and 13 Asian, giving those two regional groups a combined majority of votes. Western European and Others Group have 7 seats, Eastern Europe has 6, and the Latin American and Caribbean states have 8. Those groupings, however, do not take into account the cross-regional political blocs that operate at the United Nations. Two of those blocs, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), dominate Council proceedings and direct its work. What that means in reality is that those blocs shield their members from scrutiny and direct the Council’s attention to countries or situations that advance their political objectives. I shall give you some examples of what I mean.
Israel is an obvious example, and one on which I shall not dwell for too long. There have always been certain ‘pariah’ states that have received excessive attention at UN bodies. There is no doubt that the situations in countries like apartheid-era South Africa and Israel deserve and require scrutiny and action. The problem is that such action lacks even-handedness when compared with the failure to act on similar situations taking place elsewhere. This is something that I emphasise and discuss in both of my books – it is not that the UN is wrong to focus on Israel, but rather that the grossly disproportionate scrutiny of the occupation of Palestinian territories is in stark contrast to the lack of attention the UN devotes to the occupied Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Tibet or other occupied lands. In its first few years, the Human Rights Council excessively focused on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories to the extent that many commentators dismissed the body as being little more than old wine in new bottles.
Israel is the only country that appears on the Council’s permanent agenda, meaning that there is a discussion at every session that solely focuses on that country. Of course, that was an OIC initiative as the members of the bloc have their own political objectives for keeping the spotlight on Israel. Other countries, particularly from the EU, hoped that having one day per session devoted to Israel would mean that other unrelated discussions would not be hijacked by states seeking to turn the Council’s attention back to Israel. Sadly, that was a rather naïve expectation. The politicisation became so gross that Israel disengaged from the body last year (albeit it has subsequently re-engaged after pressure from the Western European and Others Group).
Another example of the Council’s politicisation that mirrors that of the Commission is the way in which the body addressed the genocide in Darfur. While some attention was devoted to that grave human rights situation – albeit nowhere near the amount of attention given to Israel at that time – Sudan’s government was constantly shielded from criticism. Sudan is a member of the African Group and of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. It therefore has many regional and political allies sitting on the Council at any given time. Sudan’s government responded to scrutiny of the human rights abuses in Darfur by claiming that it lacked capacity and technical abilities to prevent violations. It blocked UN independent human rights experts from visiting Darfur and sought to shift the blame for the atrocities onto other actors. The Council’s resolutions and decisions reflect Sudan’s position – rather than calling for the government to protect individuals from gross and systemic human rights abuses, those documents call upon other parties to the conflict to respect human rights and demand that the international community assist Sudan by providing capacity building and technical assistance to the government. Political blocs and regional groups using their votes and influence to shield allies from scrutiny is a replica of what occurred at the Commission.
The Council’s response to the conflict in Syria has also been politicised. That country is a member of the OIC, so one might expect that it would have been shielded from Council attention. However, because the OIC is divided on Syria – with different powerful states backing different parties to that conflict – it no longer receives protection from that bloc. The Council has rightly devoted attention to the conflict in Syria, albeit again that attention has lacked even-handedness when compared to the very little attention given to other grave conflicts around the world. The Council has devoted almost no attention to the Democratic Republic of Congo (where many millions of people have been killed, and tens of millions been displaced, since 2000) or the Central African Republic, and so on.
The Council has also failed to protect and promote rights where those rights conflict with the political, cultural or religious objectives of powerful groups and blocs. One example is the Council’s failures on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights. Something like 70 out of 193 UN member states still criminalise sexual orientation and gender identity minority persons. By that I mean not only that the acts are criminalised but that the individuals face imprisonment, torture or death for belonging to those minority groups. In 2011, during the Arab Spring and when the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation was addressing its internal rifts and no longer acting as a bloc, the Council held its first panel on LGBT rights. That event only took place because the OIC was too divided to act collectively to block the resolution that called for the panel to take place.
However, on the day of the panel the entire OIC bar two states walked out of the Council chamber. Subsequently, the OIC, African Group and Russia have introduced resolutions that not only demonstrate the Council’s unwillingness to take action to protect LGBT persons but are actually a significant backwards step on this issue.
In September 2012, Russia co-sponsored a Human Rights Council resolution on human rights and ‘traditional values of humankind’. The driving force behind that resolution was to undermine the Council’s momentum with regard to protecting the rights of LGBT persons. Although the US and some European countries objected that the rights of women and LGBT persons frequently are undermined by traditional values and religion, the resolution struck the right chord with many other countries. 25 states voted in favour, none of which were from the Western European and Others Group and only one – Ecuador – from the Group of Latin American and Caribbean states. The 15 countries that voted against the resolution EU states joined by the US, and two moderate countries that seek to uphold the rights of LGBT persons – Mauritius and Botswana. Russia, which had recently taken steps backwards regarding human rights of LGBT persons within its territory, clearly used its political clout to further an issue that aligned it with many countries from across the world.
Why is the Council able to act in this way? Because it is a political body comprised of government delegates, and if so many countries do not view LGBT persons as holding human rights then why would they seek to protect or promote those rights at the Council.
Then there are the failures to devote any attention to human rights abuses in powerful countries, such as China and Russia, or those with many allies, such as Cuba and Saudi Arabia. The failure even to discuss those countries goes to the heart of the issues of selectivity, bias and politicisation that plagued the Commission in its final years and are being repeated at the Council. Universal protection and promotion of human rights requires that attention is given to all states. While we recognise that we cannot compare the human rights records of Sweden and Somalia, or Norway and North Korea, we must still devote even-handed and proportionate attention to all states. The Universal Periodic Review (which we will discuss later) does seek to do just that. However, the grossly disproportionate scrutiny of some countries and the lack of any scrutiny of others within the Council’s regular sessions demonstrate that the issue of gross politicisation has not adequately been addressed at the new body.
I must stress, however, that just because these problems remain does not mean that the Council does not undertake and achieve good work. The body has done much to promote human rights universally, but those actions will only crystallise in the medium and long term. It also undertakes good protection work, but mainly where states have requested or consented to those activities. Countries use the Council to receive support, advice, recommendations and expertise on protecting and promoting human rights. The body’s political nature means that many states engage and cooperate with it. The problems arise in terms of the most contentious situations and types of rights, and it is in those respects that the Council’s politicisation undermines its work.
02. Could you kindly give us a historical glimpse of the role the UN has played in human rights? What has been the impact, if any?
The United Nations has been the main vehicle for creating, developing, protecting and promoting human rights. Its bodies have been used by states to create and codify – enshrine in law – international human rights law. The UN’s role has been crucial, and without that organisation we would not have the system that is currently in place. And let us not forget the famous Louis Henkin quote that most states obey most international law most of the time. Those human rights obligations generally are respected, protected and fulfilled by countries. Yet it is the times when they are violated that, rightly, make the headlines. But we must not forget that we live in a very different world to the one that existed prior to the UN, and we ought not to underestimate the role that international human rights law has played in improving the world in which we live. Whether we focus on enforced disappearances in Latin America, internally displaced persons during armed conflicts, the rights of women, discrimination against aboriginal people and indigenous populations, freedom from torture across the world, or many other human rights issues – all of these have been improved by work undertaken by and at the UN.
03. What is the purpose of Universal Periodic Review and has it been effective?
The Universal Periodic Review was created to address the issue that some countries flew under the Commission’s radar in terms of attention being focused upon their human rights records. The purpose of the UPR is to review all UN members during a four year cycle. This ensures that no country can escape attention. The review is conducted by other states, with all countries being able to attend a review session, ask questions and make recommendations. The reviewed state is required to submit reports in advance, to answer questions – although it may select which ones to answer – and to identify which recommendations it will accept.
The purpose of the review is to promote human rights by sharing information, shining the spotlight on abuses, and supporting states better to implement rights within their countries. The UPR is an inclusive, cooperative and facilitative mechanism that enables discussion and peer-support. Countries, therefore, engage with the mechanism and take it seriously. It is too soon to tell whether the UPR is an effective mechanism. On the one hand, states are able to decide which recommendations to adopt and there is no follow-up to see whether that has taken place. On the other hand, countries take their reviews seriously as no state wishes to be ‘named and shamed’ in front of its peers and no state enjoys scrutiny of their human rights record. In many ways, the answer to your question depends on what is meant by ‘effective’. If we consider effectiveness to mean immediate changes on the ground, then the only effective mechanisms will be ones that can coerce or force states to implement human rights. But if effectiveness means medium or long term change within as many countries as possible, then the UPR is a step in the right direction.
04. It appears that the UNHRC is selective in its assessment of human rights violations across the world. For instance, Israel continues to be the favourite whipping boy while other countries in the vicinity (Libya/Egypt/Syria/Iraq) continue to be the battle ground where civilians are caught up in a bloody conflict between government forces and all sorts of ‘freelance rebels’. The horrendous human rights violations in these countries appear to be the rule rather than the exception. A quote from your column in The Huffington Post (31/01/2013) sheds light on the politicisation of the UNHRC – ‘. Iran, Algeria, Syria and many others have frequently hijacked discussions about unrelated human rights matters in order once again to shine the spotlight on Israel. One of the most chilling examples of this happened during discussions about the genocide in Darfur. Sudan’s allies from the OIC argued that instead of talking about the hundreds of thousands of dead and displaced in Darfur, the Council should be focusing on Israeli violations.’ Is this politicisation also influenced by religious fundamentalism? Please comment.
I believe that religion or ‘religious fundamentalism’ is a rather crude or simplistic explanation for the politicisation that occurs at the UN Human Rights Council. Many countries are allied and work together with states that do not share their religious affiliation. Indeed, the cross-political alliances between countries such as Cuba, Russia and Venezuela and states from the OIC demonstrate that religion is not theprimary motivating factor in how states behave. Political objectives, which can span from economic interests to cultures and others, are far more important than religion when it comes to interstate relations. Indeed, even where countries share a religion it does not mean that they agree on religious practices, as is clearly evident in terms of OIC members. Religious fundamentalism, or at least it seems to me, frequently is used to ‘justify’ or ‘explain’ states’ positions. But at the end of the day, it is not religion but rather political objectives that direct how states behave at the UN.
If we are discussing armed conflicts, it is clear that the gravity of a situation in terms of the numbers of persons killed, displaced, or whose basic rights are being violated, is not the main determining factor in whether Council discusses or takes action on that country. The main factor is politics. If a country has powerful allies, or if it has the collective weight of a large regional group or political bloc that seeks to shield it from scrutiny, then the Council will be directed by those political objectives.
Of the examples that you mention, the Council has taken significant action on Libya (the only country to have been suspended from the body) and Syria. The conflicts in those two countries divided the OIC and therefore the bloc did not shield those states from scrutiny. Egypt, on the other hand, a powerful actor in the OIC and the African Group, has not received any attention at the Council. There are other states that have utilised political and regional ties to avoid scrutiny or to ensure weakened action taken by the Council. Sri Lanka is another obvious example.
05. China’s occupation and annexation of Tibet and the suppression of the rights of the Tibetans seems to be condoned by the UNHRC for there is never any ‘action’ against the Chinese. Why is this so?
One of the oft-cited statistics about the Commission was that a quarter of its country resolutions focused on Israel and not a single one focused on China despite the gross and systemic violations within that state. But this is one of the three most powerful countries in the world. It is not just the Council, or the Commission before it, that fails to take action on those powerful states. The UN General Assembly has done exactly the same: Between 1946 and 1992 the General Assembly adopted 569 resolutions on Southern Africa – approximately one fifth of the total recorded votes.
On average, the General Assembly passed between five and ten resolutions annually on apartheid policies. By contrast, during that time the Assembly passed five resolutions on China’s abuses against indigenous peoples: three on Tibet and two on Burma. Four resolutions were passed on the grave abuses committed by the USSR, despite ongoing oppression and subjugation of the Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Baltic peoples, Roma, Jews, Muslims, Romanian ethnic Hungarians, Tibetans or Uighurs’. Violations against Native Americans were ignored altogether. That lack of attention has continued over recent years, with almost no discussion of Russia’s conflict invasion of Chechnya, China’s occupation of Tibet, or US abuses in the ‘war on terror’. That lack of scrutiny can be compared with the nearly 300 resolutions (on average, 23 per session) passed about Israel during that same period of time.
The question is why such disproportionate scrutiny takes place and why the most powerful countries escape attention? It is nothing to do with human rights and everything to do with power politics.The three main powers at the United Nations are China, Russia and the US. It is the economic and military might, mixed with the geopolitical power and Security Council vetoes that make China, Russia and the US the countries that count. So, when those three states commit human rights abuses – and, to be sure, they do so with regularity – the UN might discuss them, it might even provide a report or share information. But almost invariably it will fail to take any form of action.
Because any state or group of countries that presses for such action against China, Russia or the US will place at risk their multi-faceted relationships with those powerful nations.
China, as that is who you have asked me to focus upon, plays an interesting role at the Human Rights Council. During the Cold War, China led the Non-Aligned Movement. Since the dissolution of the USSR, China has continued to take that role. Despite its clear economic, military and political powers, China deploys post-colonial discourses and allies itself with countries that adopt an anti-imperialist stance on human rights. So, not only does it use its might to ensure that it escapes attention, China also uses political manoeuvres to ensure that it has sufficient allies to shield it from scrutiny.
06. Have organisations like Human Rights Watch been of assistance to the UNHRC by reporting gross violations in many countries? And have such organisations also been used by governments to serve their own political ends?
That is an interesting question. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) play a significant role at the Council. They are able to sit at Council sessions, deliver statements, run side-events, and engage with the body to a great extent. There are NGOs that provide significant assistance to the Council, some of which are large and have broad mandates such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and others that have niche areas of expertise.
Other Geneva-based NGOs like UPR Info and International Service for Human Rights are also key actors. Now, of course, NGOs are political insofar as they have their own objectives and aims. As with states, no NGO can avoid being labelled as political. The better question is whether NGOs’ political objectives undermine their usefulness in terms of information-sharing and fact-finding with regard to human rights? Again, as with countries, it is not the political objectives that undermine the effectiveness of NGOs in terms of protecting and promoting rights but rather the extent to which those political objectives are unrelated to human rights.
Human Rights Watch, as with all US civil society actors, operate independently of the government and any funds given to it are done without government interference in the organisation’s work. Of course the US government funds NGOs from across the political spectrum, and some of those organisations will support or agree with US government policies or activities. But that does not make them tied to or even working with the government. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are particularly useful for the Council because they report on gross and systemic violations across the world. They have access to and provide information on abuses that Council members might not know about. The work of those organisations complements and adds to the work undertaken by UN independent experts and fact-finding missions. However, the work of those NGOs is directed by the organisations’ mandates and politics and that must be taken into account when using and relying upon their work.
07. There are many groups – OIC, NAM, Commonwealth countries, NATO, MINT, BRIC, ASEAN, OPEC, etc – that exist and each group panders to the political and economic views of the countries that form each group. How do these groups help or hinder the work of the UNHRC?
I think by now you might have an idea about what I will say on this subject. Politics is the driving force at the Council, and the different political groups interact with one another ways that sometimes help and sometimes hinder the Council’s work. That has been clear from the past 8 years, and I hope that I have made that clear during this interview. What I would like to discuss is how we can utilise political blocs to protect and promote human rights. One way forward would be to use ‘linkage’. Countries seek ties with political blocs, whether by applying to the EU for aid money or seeking to enact trade agreements with MINT or BRIC, and so on. That money, those resources, support for development, alongside economic and trade ties, might well be used to place pressure on countries to comply with human rights obligations. This works at the regional level. Political, economic and other pressures encourage – or coerce – many states to comply with regional human rights mechanisms. So, why not use this type of linkage at the universal level? Of course, that would require those blocs to take seriously human rights. Some of them do while others do not, and all have their own ideological stances on human rights. But since political blocs dominate proceedings at the Council, we need to find a way to work with them and to use them as a vehicle for good rather than to continue either to try to work around them. It is that or reform the Council to take into account political blocs, or even to turn it into an expert body – but neither of those will happen less than a decade after the last, and very expensive, reform to the UN’s principal human rights body. So, instead, we need to find ways to work with what we have got.
08. Why has the UNHRC been quiet on the continued use of drones by USA? Drones that have maimed or killed many civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen? Is there a different yardstick that is used by western nations when it comes to their own human rights track record and accountability? Please comment.
This is a similar question to the one on China, so I will try not to repeat myself too much. The bottom line is that powerful countries are shielded from scrutiny not only by the votes of their allies but also by the looming threat of political, economic or other repercussions for countries that seek to shine the spotlight onto their abuses. The US uses power politics to its advantage. It is not only allied with states from the Global North, which remain amongst the wealthiest and most powerful world players, but also with individual countries within other regions. Its close links with Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia give the US a foothold in the Middle East. Similarly, its ties with Pakistan and Sri Lanka provide the US with footholds in Asia. While the US alliances are numerically fewer than those of China or Russia, they provide a different form of protection from UN action on human rights abuses.
The US has long taken an exceptionalist and unilateralist approach to international relations and organisations. It is well-known for supporting the creation of international human rights law and mechanisms and for encouraging other states to comply with the human rights system. Once the laws or mechanisms have been created, however, the US determines whether to place itself within or outside of the system. This exceptionalist and unilateralist approach may stem from power politics, moral high-ground or the need for autonomy, but it goes beyond human rights and extends into almost all areas of international law. President Woodrow Wilson was the driving force behind the creation of the League of Nations, yet the US refused to become a member of that organisation. History repeated itself 80 years later when the US refused to ratify the Rome Statute despite being a key player in the creation of the International Criminal Court and using its influence to persuade other states to get on board. The US approach to international law means that it is less concerned than are other countries about votes in political bodies or political attention focused on its own human rights record. However, it is concerned about human rights experts’ reports and recommendations, and it takes seriously any legal attention that focuses upon US violations. The US frequently relies on its allies’ support when it comes to those matters. Its allies are powerful, and they are able to use their might within UN bodies. Behind the scenes diplomatic dealings and pressures ensures that no UN body goes too far in its criticisms of the US.
It is not just state alliances that protect countries from scrutiny. A large proportion of the UN human rights experts come from the Global North. One reason is because the independent expert posts are unpaid, requiring individuals to retain paid employment with their institutions. Traditionally, the majority of independent experts have come from universities, and those from the Global North are more likely to be able to absorb the cost of academics undertaking this unpaid work and to recognise the prestige of the position. Similarly, individuals sitting on treaty body committees often are from Global North countries or have been educated within their universities. With the occasional exception, those individuals hold similar views on human rights to those held by the US. The legal and political infrastructure more clearly reflects Western ideologies than those of Eastern Europe or beyond. This frequently assists the US when it comes to scrutiny by UN bodies.
But the UN does scrutinise other Global North states. We need only look at recent UN visits to the UK and Canada and the reactions of government officials to the independent experts’ reports to see that Global North countries do not escape attention or criticism of their human rights records.
09. The term ‘cultural sensitivities’ is often used as an excuse by nations that want to side step human rights violations in their respective countries. In these countries women continue to be second class citizens and subject to all sorts of abuse and denied their fundamental rights. For instance in Saudi Arabia women are subject to the authority of any male member of the family even if that male member is a juvenile. They do not enjoy much of the rights accorded to men. Why has Saudi Arabia continued to remain out of the spotlight? Please comment?
Cultural relativism is a main obstacle to universal human rights protection and promotion. The world is not made up of homogenous states. Even within fairly homogeneous regions there are different cultures and identities. Cultural relativism acknowledges that states need to commit to human rights obligations in ways that do not undermine their own values and norms. That enables countries to manage the tension between engaging with the international human rights system and retaining their own identities and interests. And it works where those values and norms do not contradict fundamental aspects of international human rights law. But there are plenty of times when the tension between universality and cultural relativism results in grave, systemic human rights abuses.
But even aside from the legitimate problems that arise owing to cultural relativism, there are even greater issues that arise where countries deploy that term as an excuse for avoiding their human rights commitments and obligations. You have identified the examples of women’s rights and of Saudi Arabia. A main problem is that the cultural relativist cause has been hijacked by countries, cultures or people who seek to justify human rights abuses. Universalists insist that individuals, by virtue of being human, have certain rights that cannot depend on the place of birth. The charge of ethnocentrism does not ring true where we are discussing a young girl’s right not to be forced into marriage before puberty. Cultural relativism cannot be used to deny a child the basic right not to be born into slavery. Yet there are many who seek to justify such violations on the basis of heritage, tradition or religion.
One argument for criminalising homosexual acts in many African or Islamic countries is based on religion. That argument is derailed before it can even be debated by the oppression, subjugation and violation of the rights of individuals based solely on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Cultural relativists who insist on a context-specific approach to sexual acts, are undermined by the systematic violations of the human rights LGBT persons living within such countries.
Discrimination against women might be legitimate within certain contexts. Countries may choose to limit jobs, such as combat roles within the armed forces, available to women. Others may require women to wear specific types of clothing on religious or traditional grounds. Girls might be expected to attend
female-only places of education. But where a country seeks to subjugate women, to allow legal violence against women, to enable girls to enter into forced marriage long before adulthood, and then seeks to justify it on ‘cultural’ or ‘religious’ grounds, the argument for cultural relativism is once again undermined.
And of course, where it comes to countries like Saudi Arabia, the political, economic and other powers held by those states enable them to insist upon supposedly cultural relativist exceptions to their international human rights obligations. Saudi Arabia is protected by its Gulf neighbours, and by its political allies within the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The country’s oil and wealth, its ties with the US, and its position amongst Muslim states means that other countries pay scant attention to its abuses and care even less about holding the Saudi regime to account for its violations against its own citizens.
10. Could you share with us a glimpse of your life and works, including your published work?
I have written two books, so far. The first focuses solely on the UN Human Rights Council and its early years, using international law and international relations theories to assess the body. It was launched at an event jointly hosted by the UK Mission to Geneva and the UN Library. The second book will be published next month and explains the UN failure to protect human rights. It is aimed at a non-specialist reader in order to bring these issues to an audience other than the academic or human rights elites. I believe that it is so important that these matters are understood and discussed by all people, not just scholars or UN diplomats. My other research focuses on the UN, human rights, and the intersection between international law and international relations. Over the past year I have been advising and writing on the case that is being brought against the UN on behalf of cholera victims in Haiti. I particularly enjoy that type of work, where I can use my skills as an academic and researcher to have some impact ‘on the ground’. Alongside my published academic works, I also write for national media and online blogs, again with the aim of ensuring my research reaches audiences other than academic and human rights elites.
My job also involves teaching and travelling for research and conferences. I work at the Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham, where I am fortunate to have excellent students and outstanding colleagues. I work closely with staff from law, humanities and social sciences, and find Birmingham University’s interdisciplinary research culture to be vibrant and engaging. Outside of my work, I am a keen Arsenal fan, a recent convert to 5.30am jogging, and am always more than happy to take a break from writing if there is a decent single malt whisky on offer.
Dr Rosa Freedman teaches International Human Rights at the University of Birmingham and is a member of the English Bar. She has published articles in, amongst others, the Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights and the International Journal of Human Rights. She previously taught at Queen Mary’s, University of London and has worked for various NGOs. She also writes regularly for the Guardian and the Huffington Post. www.rosafreedman.com