Human Rights Centre Clinic: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Project (2021-22)

Charlotte Dickson, Ayşe Uzun Demir and Arne Vermeerbergen in UNHCR HQ

Over the Summer of 2021, the Human Rights Liaison Unit (HRLU) in the Division of International Protection (DIP) of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) negotiated with Essex’s Human Rights Centre (HRC) Clinic to coordinate a project with human rights and humanitarian law masters students to investigate the interaction between Special Procedure Mandate Holders (SPMHs) and UNHCR at headquarters, in the regions, and at country level.

In October 2021, Arne Vermeerbergen, Ayşe Uzun Demir, Charlotte Dickson and Parkhi Saxena took on this project. They came with varying degrees of prior knowledge, but for all of them, the scope and complexity of the project was a steep learning curve which they all took on with great enthusiasm. This was one of the six projects of the HRC Clinic of the University of Essex in 2021-22 (the annual report of the Clinic’s activities can be found here).

To give a brief overview of the scope of the project, there are 45 Thematic Mandate and 13 Country Mandate Holders, variously titled Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts or members of a Working Group. They are supported by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). They are a Charter mechanism and so are not tied to any particular human rights treaty, but they all have their own separate mandates.

Clearly, the Country Mandate Holders focus on human rights in that country, but the thematic SPMHs focus on their mandate globally; they may issue thematic reports, communications, statements and undertake country visits on their mandate followed by a country report. SPMHs change regularly and a new one may have more or less knowledge of persons within the mandate of UNHCR.

Initially limited to refugees, UNHCR’s mandate has expanded over the past eight decades to include stateless persons and conflict-driven internally displaced persons (IDPs) within the Global Protection Cluster. And UNHCR staff move in and out of headquarters and between countries and regional offices in the field.

Maintaining links in such circumstances is not straightforward and the Clinic Project was about improving communication along with expanding interaction. The Team needed to learn all about the Mandates, but also about UNHCR’s mandate and its operations, as well as the interaction between different parts of the UN: UNHCR, OHCHR, and the independent Mandate Holders.

The desk-based research showed that there was a wide variation in engagement by SPMHs with persons in UNHCR’s mandate, and sometimes there was no carry-over when the SPMH changed. While there is an obvious link between the Special Rapporteurs on the human rights of internally displaced persons and on the human rights of migrants, nearly every thematic SPMH has some relevance to refugees, IDPs and stateless persons – violence and discrimination against women might spark flight and be a constant threat during protracted displacement, minorities are often persecuted and have to flee, the threat to freedom of religion and belief is often the reason for seeking refugee status abroad, transitional justice may be essential for refugees and IDPs to feel it is secure to return. To substantiate the desk-based research, the Team also interviewed SPMHs, their OHCHR support teams and relevant sections in UNHCR HQ and the regions.

Their report made clear the need for greater training for SPMHs regarding UNHCR’s protection mandate, but also for improving awareness of the usefulness of SPMHs to UNHCR’s field operations – UNHCR achieves most of its successes through quiet diplomacy from its in-country missions to 137 countries. Over 80% of the 100 million forcibly displaced persons within UNHCR’s mandate are living in low- or middle-income countries, many that are not party to any refugee convention or even international human rights law treaty. A lot of what UNHCR does has to remain confidential, in much the same ways as the ICRC. However, SPMHs can and should speak out about rights violations and while SPMHs are there for every victim, they are also there for refugees, IDPs and stateless persons.

What the Team also highlighted was UNHCR’s cross-border perspective compared to SPMHs that either are mandated for one country or are carrying out country visits. While the independence of all parties needs to be maintained, the potential for coherent and coordinated intervention cannot be doubted.

In recognition of their continued association with the project, the Team received the Essex Law School Bursary of the 2021-22 academic year. Furthermore, to promote their findings, the Team were invited by Peter Swiniarski of the HRLU, who hard worked with them all year, to speak at the UNHCR HQ in Geneva on 29 September 2022. They prepared over the Summer and then, with a little specific planning on the night before and in the morning, three of them in person, Arne, Ayşe, and Charlie, with Parkhi joining online from India as she prepared to take up her new position as Assistant Lecturer at Jindal Global Law School, presented in Lecture Room 4 in UNHCR to members of the HRLU and to about 40 field officers around the world.

A picture of the online presentation (inset: ongoing session in UNHCR HQ, Parkhi Saxena presenting online)

It was a fantastic success and the following day, a former Essex student, now based in Mogadishu for UNHCR, Sebastian Herwig, contacted Prof. Geoff Gilbert (who supervised the project) to congratulate them. This was insightful, beyond Masters-level, impactful research that will affect UNHCR, OHCHR and SPMHs as they all seek to enhance the human rights of persons within their mandates.

The Team summed up their year-long experience in a few words:

We were fortunate to work on a project that was incredibly interesting yet very challenging. We hope that the outcomes of our research can make a difference to UNHCR’s and SPMH’s work in building better lives for those forced from their homes.

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