I recently attended a talk by New York University professor Philip Alston, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings. While his stories were horrifyingly compelling, and his experiences important, I was left truly disheartened about the inability of the UN (or any other international body for that matter) to stop
Let me break it down for you:
1. Extrajudicial Killings: When tens, hundreds, or even thousands of people are being killed in a country – often by armed forces and police – and the government turns a blind eye to these events, this is a violation of human rights. And it's happening around the world, in countries including Kenya, Colombia, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan.
2. The United Nations is supposed to stop any and all human-rights violations. However, the United Nations is not allowed to overstep a country’s sovereignty. Indeed, the UN has always walked this tightrope—it’s actually in the charter.
3. UN Special Rapporteur Alston, deemed the expert on extrajudicial killings, is supposed to contact a country when he is notified of these events. He often makes country visits to investigate and speak with officials to end the murders.
4. Alston has very few resources (in fact, he is unpaid!) and an extremely small staff.
The UN Rapporteur can visit countries, speak with leaders, and direct them to end the violence—but all it amounts to is a slap on the wrist. Kenya’s President responded to Alston’s report by denouncing both him and the UN. And since his visit there, persons he interviewed for his investigations have been murdered.
Alston described some successes. But was in Colombia did the killings end because of UN pressure or because the government had to clean up its act in order to stay on the good side of the United States? Bilateral action with the United States and other influential countries might have more of an impact. Could US threats to cut off aid force Afghani officials to start prosecuting men committing “honor killings”?
Philip Alston does amazing work as he courageously faces some of the more hostile public officials around the world. Unfortunately, he can only draw attention to events and hope that public pressure will force governments to act. If the United Nations can’t do it, the question remains, how can we end these horrendous human-rights violations?