Insecurity for the mandate of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia

Leaked government documents seen by the newspaper El Espectador have raised concerns regarding the Colombian Government’s intention to restrict the mandate of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). It is essential that Colombia ensures a renewal of the full mandate of the OHCHR in Colombia to guarantee international independent monitoring of the human rights situation.

In September 2018, Julian Braithwaite, UK Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, highlighted the importance of the work of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and of international human rights monitoring mechanisms. One of the positive examples he gave was of Colombia – both of the work of the UN office in Colombia and for the Colombian Government’s acknowledgement of the importance of this mechanism demonstrated by their willingness to invite the OHCHR to have a local office in Colombia with a full reporting mandate.

In light of this, an article in the Colombian National Newspaper El Espectador, revealing a draft document, which El Espectador had unofficially seen, prepared by the Colombian Government, which appeared to indicate an intention to limit the mandate of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, was profoundly concerning.

“…The UK continues to champion universal human rights, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because they nurture and underpin the peace, security and prosperity that we all seek… There are many countries that agree with us. They facilitate access and work with, rather than against, the OHCHR and the human rights mechanisms.”

Julian Braithwaite, Ambassador and Permanent Representative, UK Mission to the UN and Other International Organisations, Geneva

The Office in Colombia continues to play a crucial role in offering technical advice to the Colombian government on human rights issues. It is essential at the moment to ensure that human rights are embedded in, and underpin, peacebuilding in Colombia. This is an even more difficult task given the continuation of the internal conflict, due to the suspension of the Peace Talks with the ELN Guerrilla Group. Until now Colombia has fully supported the presence of the OHCHR in Colombia.

“In Colombia, the OHCHR office was able to play an important role in preparing ground for the peace process and has worked to ensure that human rights are firmly embedded in plans for future peacebuilding. However, there are far too many instances of countries choosing not to engage. Countries that make cooperation difficult by erecting barriers to the OHCHR, or by expelling their staff. They choose to politicise the terms of access…”

Julian Braithwaite

That is why it is disturbing to read allegations that the Government is thinking about restricting the role of the OHCHR in Colombia.

Some of the ideas that El Espectador reports seeing in this draft document include: the aim to modify the protocol through which the Office of the High Commissioner appoints the director of his delegation in Colombia. The change would establish an obligation on the UN to verify ahead of appointment that the person who it intends to accredit has the Colombian Government’s prior consent and if the government objects they are not required  to say why; regarding public statements made by the High Commissioner, the Government wants to “set limits”, by “rationalising” the activities of the Office in the field of dissemination of information, based on the argument that the experience of its presence in the country has generated “discomfort” for the Colombian Government. Furthermore, that some of the wording should be changed, to shift the emphasis of the mandate away from observing violations of human rights to highlight the achievements and good practices of the Executive in the matter of human rights.

The Colombian Government’s response to this article was that currently there was no official document authorised by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and that the Colombian Government ‘maintains a cordial relationship with the Office of the High Commissioner, based on mutual respect and collaboration. We value the assistance and cooperation that the Office has been providing to the country in the field of human rights…’

The renewal in October 2019 of the full mandate for the OHCHR is essential. The OHCHR reports on an annual basis to the Human Rights Council at the UN in Geneva and can provide independent and unbiased reporting in a country where the situation continues to be immensely complicated and where violence, especially in the rural areas is increasing.

ABColombia therefore requests that the UK recommends to the Colombian Government that it renews the complete mandate of the OHCHR in Colombia and fully supports the work of that office.

“collectively, we need to ensure that all countries can reap the benefits of positive and productive engagement with the OHCHR and with the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. We need to ensure that all are willing to facilitate and support essential human rights monitoring and reporting functions, and hence are able to access the deep wealth of technical expertise available…There are no insurmountable barriers to improving human rights globally – we came together to create these institutions and these mechanisms and we should come together again to ensure that they are able to access the places they need to access, to benefit those most in need.”     

Julian Braithwaite

Further Reading