United Nations, New York

December 8-9, 1997

Panel 2: Human Rights in Action

Field Missions and Human Rights Monitoring

Presentation of

Colin Granderson

Executive Director, MICIVIH


Field offices and field missions are relatively recent additions to the set of tools and mechanisms available to the United Nations system for the protection and promotion of human rights. In many respects they highlight a double evolution - the passage from the conference room and the emphasis on normative considerations to the practicalities of implementing human rights in the field. The use of experts, special rapporteurs, in situ visits and missions, etc, was a critical development in this process. Secondly, to the extent that field offices and particularly field missions represent an intrusive presence, they also underline the very real transformations that have taken place in international relations since the end of the Cold War with regard to the hitherto sacrosanct notion of sovereignty.

If I am to be guided by the literature of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the oldest field office in operation was set up in Cambodia in October 1993. Since then field offices have been established in Burundi (June 1994), Malawi (January 1995), Mongolia (1995), Georgia (1996), Gaza (1996), Democratic Republic of Congo (Dec. 96), and Colombia (April 1997).

The first human rights field mission was set up by the UN, New York, in El Salvador in July 1991. This was followed by Haiti (February 1993) and Guatemala (November 1994). The UN Transitional Administration in Cambodia included a small human rights element (February 1992). These four human rights field missions had their origins in attempts to resolve conflicts and to negotiate and oversee political transitions. As such they are part of the so-called "second generation" peace-keeping operations. The office of UNHCHR has human rights field missions in Burundi, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. This division in authority and responsibility between New York and Geneva does create some institutional problems which will not be addressed here.

Using the joint OAS/UN International Civilian Mission in Haiti (MICIVIH) as an example I will describe the multiple activities of a field mission in its contributions to the promotion and protection of human rights and the consolidation of democratic institutions and constitutional democracy. MICIVIH and the peace-keeping mission have separate mandates. This has facilitated clarity of focus. In order to fulfil this mandate, the activities of MICIVIH fall into three major categories:

i) monitoring and verification

ii) institution building

iii) human rights promotion and civic education

Monitoring and Verification

In order to verify the compliance of Haitian authorities with the human rights safeguards of the Haitian Constitution and the provisions of international treaties ratified by the Haitian state, the observers of MICIVIH organized in regional teams undertake the following responsibilities

- investigate allegations of human rights violations

- collect testimonies in the field from victims of violations of human rights, and from local, civil, police, judicial and prison authorities

- visit the main detention centres to assess regularly the conditions of detention and to ascertain the judicial situation of detainees.

- provide indirect judicial assistance to detainees by bringing arbitrary situations and due process violations to the attention of judicial authorities and prosecutors in order to speed up the judicial process

- visits to police lock-ups for the above mentioned reasons

- visit courts, judicial officials, prosecutors and registrars to assess the functioning of the administration of justice

- provide medical assistance to victims of human rights violations

- make representation to the pertinent institutional authorities and the government regarding specific issues, egregious violations

- report regularly to the government and its two oversight organizations (OAS and UN) on a weekly and fortnightly basis on the human rights situation and the activities of the Mission.

During the coup d'état period (1993-1994), MICIVIH carried out what it called "active observation", not just collecting information and documenting human rights violations but making strong representation to the authorities to have persons arrested illegally and arbitrarily released. At the outset the Mission was quite successful. In addition to provide medical assistance, a medical unit was set up within the Mission, and, with the help of WHO/PAHO, a network of doctors, nurses and clinics willing to help victims was established. A legal assistance fund for victims was set up. A system of safe houses for those being actively hunted down by the repressive forces was also devised.

Following the restoration of constitutional order, monitoring is no longer an end in itself but has become the support for institutional reform and the consolidation of the rule of law ("monitoring for change"). In this regard particular attention has been paid to the new institutions - the Haitian National Police, the Prison Administration (APENA), the Ombudsman's office and the Truth Committee. The Mission has also been called upon to monitor elections on three occasions.


The information on needs and deficiencies provided by observation and monitoring feeds directly into the Mission's efforts to revamp and consolidate the institutions crucial to the protection and promotion of human rights, due process and the rule of law. This aspect of the Mission's work is absolutely vital in view of the context of discredited, eviscerated or non-existent judicial and public security institutions. Institution-Building activities take various forms:

i) technical assistance and advice (e.g. initiating prison reform; drafting of circulars on specific aspects of the law; conceptualization of the judicial reform process; commenting on jurisprudence; technical support of ad hoc commissions and committees such as the Truth Committee, the Judicial Delay Committee, the Judicial Reform Preparatory Committee; clarifying points of law and procedures for justices of the peace, judicial officials and prosecutors) in the course of visits to courts.

ii) practical proposals and initiatives to improve the respect for individual rights by the institutions (e.g.. devising/standardized prison detention and police custody registrations procedures and records keeping systems; giving training on their use; monitoring their upkeep; monitoring the case tracking system instituted in the prosecutors offices). Special attention was given to the situation of juveniles and women in detention.

iii) training on human rights standards, human rights law, reporting and criminal investigation procedures. The Mission has undertaken pioneering work in transmitting conflict resolution techniques to police/judiciary/prisons officials, peasant groups/human rights ngos.

iv) facilitating the establishment and emergence of new human rights protection institutions and mechanisms (e.g. Ombudsman's office, police and prisons internal oversight procedures). The ratification of human rights treaties not yet ratified by Haiti and the improvement of the current system of protection (proposing for instance the recognition of the jurisdiction of The Inter-American Court of Human Rights).

v) strengthening the capacity of civil society organizations, in particular human rights NGOs, to monitor the human rights situation and institutions, through theoretical training and practical experience with our regional teams; also developing the human rights capacity of the mass media and the legal community through training and presentations on human rights and judicial themes.

vi) building bridges between institutions and between officials/authorities and civil society/NGOs, through workshops, seminars, meetings bringing together a wide spectrum of officials and representatives. Also between journalists and police.

vii) documentation and information. Detailed thematic studies - police, criminal justice system, the judiciary, prisons, rehabilitation of victims, fight against impunity and compensation for victims of human rights violations. Public conferences, presentations, articles to stimulate public debate. Facilitating South-South cooperation (Bolivia, Argentina) on judicial reform issues, and comparative approaches to institutional reform.

viii) contribution to good governance through election observation, civic education for elected officials and civil society, and encouraging public support for democratic institutions.

ix) collaborating with the other international cooperation actors, both bilateral and multilateral (OAS, UN Specialized Agencies, UNDP, donors, International human rights NGOs).

Because of their beneficial consequences, institution-building activities counter-balance the negative perceptions that monitoring and verification responsibilities can awaken in the scrutinized officials.

Human Rights Promotion

"There can't be viable democracy without an authentic democratic culture. Such a culture is the synthesis of four concepts: civic-mindedness, tolerance, education and the free and open circulation of ideas and people" (Frederico Mayor, Director General, UNESCO). Human Rights promotion and civic education are seen not only as a means of strengthening the technical capacity of institutions and civil society organizations, but also as a vehicle of change which contributes to the strengthening of a democratic culture by raising public awareness of human rights, by imparting knowledge on the nature and functions of democratic institutions and by empowering those who were previously powerless. The underlying theme of the Mission's campaign has been "the rights and duties of citizens in a responsible state". Particular attention has been paid to women's rights in addition to civil and political rights.

The observers of the Mission carry out the following activities in this area:

- developing of teaching materials and manuals adapted to local realities

- distribution of OAS and UN human rights reference materials

- training trainers in order to multiply the impact and consolidate local capacity in preparation for the end of the Mission's presence.

- implementation of educational and human rights sensitization campaigns through presentations, workshops, radio and TV spots and programmes.

- production of didactic radio and TV programmes as well as information programmes on the activities of the mission.

- supporting local initiatives, state or civil society, in the areas of human rights and civic education.

- use of cultural vehicles puppets/theater/dance/murals/art competitions.

- organization of high-profile commemorative events on important human rights and constitutional anniversaries (e.g. The International Colloquium on Human Rights and the Constitution to mark the 10th anniversary of the Haitian constitution).

- building bridges between institutions and sectors.

- Importance of recourse to the media for advocacy, for information purposes, for educational purposes, and as a form of pressure as an ultimate recourse. Sensitive nature of the latter. Difficulty of reconciling public denunciation and the sensitivities of the governmental authorities. Fortunately the Mission operate in a cooperative environment.


MICIVIH has integrated preventive, monitoring and assistance functions in its activities. The multiplicity of these activities illustrates human rights in action, i.e. the implementation of human rights in the field. To quite an extent the battle for the protection and promotion of human rights has focused on holding accountable those who share final responsibility for violations (governments, officials and political elites), and using public and international opinion to achieve this objective. Field missions and field offices can and do play an important role in this respect. However, one of the major advantages of field missions is the capacity to intervene directly with the actors who are responsible for violations of human rights and due process, the men and women who comprise the security forces and the judiciary, and to bring about improvements in their conduct. In this as in other respects, field missions represent an innovative, far-reaching and effective human rights mechanism.

It is still too early for a definitive evaluation of the Mission's presence. During its first phase, the coup d'état period, it did have initially a deterrent effect, mitigated the situation of victims through representation as well as medical and other forms of assistance, and drew a worsening human rights situation to local and international attention. Since the return to constitutional order it has maintained its deterrent effect through its watchdog activities and remains an important source of information on the human rights situation. It has contributed to heightening public awareness of human rights, improving the human rights situation, facilitating the creation of key human rights institutions, and imparting new skills, techniques and knowledge. In a word it has contributed to laying the foundations, institutional and cultural, of the rule of law and of democracy.