Roger Nash, Human Rights Expert, Discusses UN Presence in the Field

Roger Nash’s academic work has focused on human rights and the UN field presence in conflict, and he is the co-author of a new report based on a two-year global research study for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

In this interview, Mr. Nash said that, for effectiveness, being in the field is “a whole other ball game,” saying it allows for meetings with different key actors such as human rights activists and police who may be committing abuses. “You don’t just get to talk to the high-level people; it’s not just broadcast on the international stage,” he said.  “You have a hundred more opportunities to influence people.”

Mr. Nash said that the UN has “normally been a big asset” and that UN field presences “should very much keep in mind their particular added value as the UN, and that means that they have a particular profile, and ability to say things safely that maybe others don’t have.” Though he also said that some member states see the UN as associated with certain political interests, especially when the mission is integrated with a military component.

One of the recommendations that came out of the report was for the UN human rights presence to grow. “We think that the work is very effective—particularly cost effective—and we recommend more of them, that it happens in more countries, that there’s greater number of people, more human rights officers working in more countries, because that’s the way they’re going to have more impact,” he said.

The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations.

Listen to interview
(or download mp3):

Warren Hoge: Roger Nash of Fieldview Solutions is the co-author of a new report from a two-year global research study for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The report is entitled “Influence on the Ground: Understanding and Strengthening the Protection Impact of United Nations Human Rights Field Presences,” and Roger is here in the Global Observatory today to walk us through it.

Roger, for a start, does the UN have human rights field presences in many places? How many people are involved? How many of them did you talk to, and where, to prepare your report?

Roger Nash: The UN has human rights field presences in 58 countries. They vary a lot in their size. Some of them are very big, and some of them just one or two people; total in the field is just over 1,000 people, which sounds like a lot, but when you compare with some of the other UN agencies, it’s far smaller.

For the study, we did case studies in Colombia, DRC, Nepal, and Uganda. We also did smaller visits to about five or six other countries. We did phone interviews with staff in twenty other countries. All in all, we interviewed about 400 people. Not all of these people were human rights officers. It was politicians, military officers, police officials–there were a lot of human rights activists and civil society activists in general from all of these countries because we thought it was very important to get all the different perspectives included.

WH: As a long-time journalist, I associate human rights organizations or offices with reports exposing human rights abuses and programs to monitor behavior to forestall new abuses. But that’s not the primary activity you were examining, is it? How does this UN field work you looked at go about achieving protection?

RN: Certainly monitoring and report writing is a huge part of the work, but we found that it was really just one tool in our more complete package. A lot of the time, we’ve gotten used to the concept that human rights work is about documenting cases and denouncing them, but in fact, the work that we saw was far more nuanced. It was goal oriented. It was really about analyzing a situation on the ground and thinking about all the tools you have at your disposal to influence that situation.

Now, monitoring and technical cooperation are the terms we’ve heard used most often. But, in fact, there’s a lot of blurring between the two. We found that the terminology that people are used to using is not really accurate anymore, that when you’re trying to influence somebody, it’s usually a combination of getting good data and using that maybe to pressure them or to try to influence their behavior, but it’s also about the relationships you build, the way that you can talk to them so they know what the expectations are of how they’re going to be measured, and also that they see you as having a cooperative, constructive relationship with them where you’re not just criticizing, but you’re giving them a tool that is going to help them do a better job.

WH: In the mix of activities, what did you find were the most effective strategies, and do you have any examples?

RN: Well, we saw that just by being in the field, it’s a whole other ball game. You have a hundred more opportunities to influence people. You don’t just get to talk to the high-level people, it’s not just broadcast on the international stage. You’re meeting at very local levels with human rights activists and giving them encouragement. You’re meeting with police who are maybe actually committing abuses. You get the opportunity to interact with so many more people. This is a key element of the field work, that it’s fundamentally different in the means you can have to influence people.

It’s not so much one activity or another, but it’s the way that you relate all of those things together. For example, if you have one visit to the field, it might be doing five or six things at once: you might be meeting with a remote community, or visiting a human rights activist in a remote area, or just meeting with a police commander. One single visit might be combining many goals: you might be trying to raise the profile of a particular issue; you might be trying to send a dissuasive message about how the police or the military will be held to account; you might be trying to send encouragement messages, or you might be doing capacity building, or any of these things. So we found that the most effective strategies were about putting all the different pieces together in a way that is directed towards achieving a very particular goal.

WH: The UN image in the field: is it an asset or is it a liability?

RN: That’s an interesting question. That varies a lot. It depends on your image with whom. Certainly, historically, it’s normally been a real asset. I’ve worked in a lot of countries where being the UN certainly gives you a high profile. It means that when you say something, people tend to notice it. But there are certainly many countries around the world today where it’s very associated with certain political interests, and this is one of the inevitable challenges with the more integrated missions where there can be military components, there can be member states that are contributing military forces at the same time. In those situations, it’s very difficult for the UN to be seen as somebody who is outside of these political influences, because actually in many cases, they’re not. I think it really depends very much on the country that you’re talking about.

WH: The report as I understand it was commissioned by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Does that mean that here in the headquarters community of the UN, they’re interested in knowing what’s happening in the field, and to what extent does it differ from what’s happening here, and if I’m right in describing its purpose, what did you find was the answer to that question?

RN: I guess I should make something very clear. This is a report by two people as independent consultants. Now, we had very strong cooperation from the Office of the High Commissioner, and in fact, we had a small amount of funding as well. But the bulk of the funding we raised directly by member states that were really interested in understanding more completely how the work happens in the field.

Now, the support that we got from the office was incredibly valuable, and it was really representing a genuine interest of the office itself both to understand and to communicate the mechanics by which it has this impact on the ground to protect people’s rights. We’ve had a wonderful response from them since we’ve published the book. They hosted a major event in Geneva where the High Commissioner launched the book. They’ve really adopted it very much as a standard of an explanation of what they’re doing in the field and trying to use it so that especially their donors can understand better what they’re doing. But having said that, the study is not an official product of the office, and everything in it is really just the opinions of the two of us.

WH: Now your report makes five recommendations. Is that enough to trigger your memory of what those five are?

RN: I actually took an opportunity to jot them down a second ago. The primary one is something I talked about already, that it’s really for the office and the human rights field presences to be very aware of the full toolbox of measures that they have, and to try to communicate that more clearly so that everybody understands that the work in the field doesn’t get into such easy boxes or pigeon holes as monitoring technical cooperation, and the most effective work is really nuanced cooperation.

The second recommendation we have is the field presences should very much keep in mind their particular added value as the UN, and that means that they have a particular profile, and ability to say things safely that maybe others don’t have. Particularly, civil society activists working in these countries may not be able to say things, and if the UN is not able to stand up and make that space for them, it in some sense calls to question, why is the UN there and not civil society? Because that’s the real key value added by the UN in a lot of these situations.

Thirdly, we found that a lot of the bigger presences have been started in response to crises; for example, in the Congo, in Cambodia, and in Nepal. And then there’s a real question about what should happen in the longer term, because as these crises change, the presences discovered that there’s actually longer-term human rights issues underlying the crises. As the UN, they actually have a responsibility to look at these as well. They can’t just say that human rights are just crises rights. So, on occasion it has appeared to catch the office by surprise, and they need to be more prepared for what the long-term role is following onto the new crises.

Fourthly, we think that the work is very effective, particularly cost effective, and we recommend more of them, that it happens in more countries, that there’s greater number of people, more human rights officers working in more countries, because that’s the way they’re going to have more impact.

Finally, beyond that growth—that organic growth if you like—we think there should be a really strategic ambitious vision of where this is going in the longer term, to think what does this institution look like, what do these human rights field presences look like, and is it actually the right strategy that they should be more ad hoc, much smaller than some of the other UN agencies, or is it such a fundamental thing that could be more strongly brought into the standard human rights architectures that everybody understands what these presences are; and that people don’t see it as a badge against their honor, or stain against their honor to have a presence, but instead it’s a normal expectation of a member of the international community that you’ll be engaged at that level.

WH: Roger Nash, thank you so much for discussing this in the Global Observatory.

RN: Thank you very much.     

Photo credit: Preston Merchant