Simulation Innovation: Human Rights in Focus

by Emily on October 13, 2013

Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks at the treaty body strengthening consultations for States party to international human rights treaties held by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) today. On stage, from left to right are: Ivan Simonovic, Assistant Secretary-General in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, President of the General Assembly; Ms. Pillay; and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

ECOSOC Meeting Focuses on Strengthening Human Rights Treaty Bodies
Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks at the treaty body strengthening consultations for States party to international human rights treaties held by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) today.

This guest article has been provided by Ryan Kaminski, the United Nations Association of the United States of America Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow.

As Model UN groups everywhere begin organizing conferences for the 2013-2014 season, the community should examine innovative opportunities to simulate, spread awareness, as well as explore a few unsung aspects of one’s the UN’s most critical jobs: promoting human rights. Below are three options for adapting new Model UN based simulations based on the United Nations’ human rights architecture. They include: treaty bodies, conferences of state parties, as well as “new” treaty assemblies.

Treaty Bodies

 First, while Model UN conferences have made great strides in simulating organs like the Human Rights Council and special international tribunals, the UN’s ten treaty bodies have received comparatively little attention. Treaty bodies are composed of between ten to twenty-three international experts, which assess and offer guidance on the implementation of the UN’s core human rights treaties among UN members. They receive implementation reports, both oral and written, from countries around the world which have ratified human rights treaties. In turn, the treaty bodies offer nonbinding recommendations to state parties concerning the implementation of such treaties. Treaty-body members also regularly engage with civil society in efforts to get an accurate ground-level picture of how countries meeting treaty obligations domestically. They also tend to be quite busy, and often overloaded, given 80 percent of UN members have ratified four or more human rights treaties.

To name just a few, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women’s (“CEDAW”) treaty body is called the “Committee on the on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.” The UN Convention against Torture’s treaty body is called the “UN Committee against Torture”, and so on—usually, anyways, as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’ treaty body is called the “Human Rights Committee”.

A hypothetical simulation of a treaty body could include delegates acting as independent, international experts reviewing UN members’ efforts to implement human rights treaties. The central task would be for the group to collectively agree, not on a final resolution, but on a set of recommendations for one or more countries concerning the implementation of a particular convention. For conference organizers, treaty body simulations would also require significant which could include crafting reports and preparing oral remarks or presentations from UN members undergoing “reviews”.  There is also a natural channel to add “crisis” situations to the mix. Most treaty bodies, for example, can receive complaints from individuals regarding particularly serious human rights violations. The UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment can also conduct preventive country visits at prison facilities, if permitted to do so by a country.

Such simulations would prioritize in-depth research of certain countries or regions and provide numerous opportunities for individual delegates to shine via thought leadership. Most critically, simulating treaty bodies would also accomplish much in terms of real world human rights promotion in two ways. First, it would introduce young people to the genuine work—and mandates—of such bodies which are often mischaracterized to extreme degrees within certain outlets. Second, it would shine the spotlight on a key UN process that delegates’—whether from the United States or Azerbaijan—native countries participate in, along with pathways available for civil society, nongovernmental organizations, and national human rights institutions to contribute.

 Conferences of State Parties (CSP)

The UN also regularly convenes meetings of countries, which have ratified a certain UN human rights treaty to discuss implementation-related progress and challenges. In July 2013, for example, the Sixth Annual Conference of States Parties UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities occurred at UN headquarters in New York. The event, specifically focusing on “Ensuring adequate standards of living: empowerment and participation of persons with disabilities within the framework of the CRPD” not only drew over 100 state-parties to the CRPD, it also included hundreds of civil society groups and representatives hosting side-events and offering technical advice on how best to make sure the convention reaches more than billion persons with disabilities worldwide.

Differing slightly from a real world CSP meeting, the final goal for a Model UN simulated one could be producing an outcome document or statement in the form of a resolution highlighting potential solutions, key obstacles in regards to implementation, as well as relevant accomplishments since the treaty came into force. Advantageously, engaging in a CSP simulation on a particular UN human rights treaty would provide conference organizers with unique flexibility in terms of committee sizes. While some treaties like the Convention on the Rights of the Child nearly all UN members have ratified (193 parties), there are others with substantially less state parties like the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (39 parties).

Simulating CSPs would provide delegates a platform for understanding key challenges associated with countries and even entire regions and fulfilling the standards established by legally binding human rights commitments. Of course, delegates may also find it particularly interesting to see which countries are (or are not) represented at such meetings—they may be surprised! There is also room for conferences or summits not connected to a specific treaty, but broader rights and empowerment oriented themes and goals. The United Nations Association of the United States of America’s (UNA-USA) Global Classrooms Model UN program, for example, plans to run a simulation on “Expanding the Role of Women in Governance and Policy” in 2014.

New Treaties

Similar but different to the CSP concept is the possibility of holding simulations to literally draft new treaties that address potential gaps in the international human rights system. The UN has done this in other thematic areas, sometimes for years on end, for issues like the Law of the Sea Treaty as well as the more recent UN Arms Trade Treaty.  Recently, some human rights activists have recently called for a new UN human rights treaty regarding the rights of older persons.  There is also ample space for historical simulations of efforts to draft the UN’s nine core human rights treaties including documents like the Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Finally, some countries have habitually cited absence of specific treaties related to certain issues or groups—such as sexual orientation and gender identity, for instance—as reason enough not to support nonbinding UN human rights initiatives and declarations advancing human rights protections.

Simulating treaty negotiations would demand not only a medium to large sized committee, but also delegates to apply a mutually-reinforcing triad of international legal knowledge, diplomatic finesse, and well as political strategy during negotiations.  Specifically, delegates would be tasked with successfully navigating nothing less than a gauntlet of concerns be it enforcement issues, cultural differences, and even funding considerations as the UN human rights system unfortunately receives a little less than 3 percent of the UN regular budget. Developing new treaties would also demand gathering input from civil society stakeholders across the world, encouraging pre-conference research beyond merely searching for statements produced by delegates’ “home” government. For many Model UN delegates, the simulation itself would be a special once-in-a-delegate-career opportunity to actually establish new committees—a strategy usually only eliciting eye rolls by committee chairs in more traditional simulations—to tackle key human rights problems, including a (you guessed it) new treaty body.

Perhaps most interestingly, such committees could build bridges between Model UN and broader human rights advocacy through expanding awareness of the role of civil society in the development of treaties as well as the records of individual UN members in treaty deliberations. If anything, building new treaties from the bottom up would provide a clear appreciation for how difficult, albeit rewarding, the process of developing a binding legal framework with global reach can be.

Overall, the fundamental goal of simulation innovation in terms of treaty bodies, CSPs, or new treaties assemblies is about expanding dialogue and critical thinking about these mechanisms and the role of the UN in promoting universal human rights. These are ideas to complement, not replace, more traditional and semi-traditional simulations of organs which continue to play a vital educational and, most importantly, fun, role for delegates and staff whether in middle school or college. As the latest Model UN Season opens, it would be fantastic to see organizers simulate and innovate for human rights.

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