Julian Braithwaite

Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN and other international organisations in Geneva

Part of FCDO Human Rights UK in Switzerland

23rd February 2016 Geneva, Switzerland

The UN’s Role On Human Rights Is About More Than Julian Assange

Like all governments and international organisations, the UN sometimes gets a bad press.

Recently the UN faced critical headlines following the release of an opinion by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that Julian Assange was being arbitrarily detained in the UK.

Now, the decision to conclude that someone who is evading Swedish justice by barricading themselves inside an embassy is somehow a victim of arbitrary detention was not the Working Group’s finest hour. With a number of UN member states denying habeas corpus and due process to thousands of real detainees, there are also arguably more pressing priorities for them to focus on.

But these headlines obscure a bigger truth, and that is the vital role that the United Nations has played and continues to play in upholding and promoting human rights around the world.

The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention itself has a proud and illustrious history. By bringing Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest in Burma to the attention of the world, it helped facilitate the political transition we are now witnessing in that country.

Hundreds of UN officials around the world, in peacekeeping missions and in the country offices of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, diligently document human rights abuses and violations, sometimes at great personal risk.

Their reports contribute to the statements by the UN Secretary General and the UN High Commissioner. And they feed into the debates and resolutions of the Security Council and the Human Rights Council. These can in turn encourage political changes that lead to concrete improvements in human rights. While resistance remains, that’s what we’re starting to see in Sri Lanka.

Then there is the work the UN does to help build institutional capacity at the national level to promote human rights. While not the stuff of media headlines, it is no less significant for all that. Human rights and human development are two sides of the same coin. Good governance, the rule of law, a free press, accountability, the rights of women and girls; all these things have been shown, time and again, to be essential for social and economic progress. It’s what the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, calls the Golden Thread running through development.

In the Human Rights Council, every country’s human rights record is scrutinized through the Universal Periodic Review process, recommendations made, and if necessary support provided. Like so much of the most effective work on human rights, this is a consensual not a conflictual process. While not strictly part of the UN, the regular oversight of national implementation of the Convenant on Civil and Political Rights by the Human Rights Committee is another example.

The UN has contributed enormously to advancing the principle that human rights are universal. That there is no justification for treating people differently, legally or in practice. And where countries have lacked the capacity to advance human rights due to their level of development, the UN has been there to help.

The UN’s greatest strength on human rights, as on every other issue, is its moral authority. That is ultimately why countries uphold and if necessary help enforce its resolutions.

This authority is a precious thing, established through all the things the UN has said and done over the years. Preserving it is one of the most solemn duties of anyone who represents the UN. But it will endure beyond a few bad headlines.

About Julian Braithwaite

Julian Braithwaite was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other international organisations in Geneva in April 2015. Julian was born in Rome, and has…

Julian Braithwaite was appointed Her Majesty’s
Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other international organisations in Geneva in April 2015.

Julian was born in Rome, and has degrees from Cambridge and Harvard universities, where he studied biochemistry, history and international relations.

He is married to Biljana Braithwaite and they have
two daughters, Anya (born 2000) and Katya (born 2004). He spent much of his career dealing with the crises in the former Yugoslavia and goes to Montenegro every summer.

Julian posts on the United Nations and the issues around globalisation, including human rights, the internet, global health, humanitarian crises and arms control.