PEN goes to the UN by Deji Olukotun


Deji Olukotun, Ford Fellow based at PEN America writes….

For the past three weeks, I’ve been trudging up to the UN to engage with the Human Rights Committee. The main building of the Secretariat remains under construction so the sessions have been held in a warehouse decorated with the national patrimony of member countries—tapestries from China, a replica of a giant Vietnamese gong, and paintings by prominent artists. The most eye-catching piece is a golden palm tree from Bahrain studded with pearls. The art highlights the commitment of these countries to the UN and the tremendous resources at play. Bahrain, for example, has systematically violated human rights and is the focus of a PEN International campaign.
The Human Rights Committee is charged with monitoring the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), one of the core human rights treaties that make up the so-called International Bill of Rights. (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Political Rights being the other instruments.) The Committee is comprised of 18 members nominated by their countries, all volunteer experts with extensive human rights experience. After a state party signs the ICCPR, it must present a report of its human rights record to the Committee. The Committee then reviews the report and invites civil society input. It issues concluding observations on the state party that both admonish human rights violations and provide practical remedies to improve them.

The Committee is dedicated to freedom of expression, having recently adopted General Comment 34, a lengthy document that presents its authoritative interpretation of Article 19 of the ICCPR. Turkmenistan submitted its report to the Committee for the first time in its history during this recent session. Among other suggestions, the Committee promptly made recommendations for the country to improve its treatment of free expression by creating structures to stop the harassment of journalists and uphold the freedom of association.

The U.S. will be reviewed by the Committee one year from today and the U.S. government is taking this process seriously. Civil society groups have also been gearing up to provide their input. A few weeks ago, I attended a training organized by the Transnational Law Clinic of the University of Pennsylvania, the ACLU, and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute in which NGOs strategized about how to access the UN and, more importantly, how to use UN advocacy to effect practical change on the ground.

PEN doesn’t only focus on the Human Rights Committee. Led by PEN International and working with other PEN Centers, we have also been actively engaged with the Universal Periodic Review mechanism of the Human Rights Council. None of these processes is perfect—and the UN itself recognizes their flaws—but each is a part of our broader array of human rights strategies to promote freedom of expression around the world.

(This article was published on PEN American Centre’s blog April 2 2012)