On the Value of Human Rights


In 2020, we celebrate 75 years of the UN, the intergovernmental organization that, since its formation, aimed to maintain international peace, security, and a protection of human rights. Yet although human rights are, according to the United Nations Charter, one of the three pillars of the United Nations, the organisation only invests a small portion of its financial resources in this pillar. Silke Voß-Kyeck, an expert on the United Nations and rapporteur for Forum Menschenrechte, explores the correlation between finances and human rights protection within the UN for the 75th anniversary of the organisation.

United Nations Human Rights Council

The United Nations Charter was signed 75 years ago. This unique multilateral organisation was established to maintain peace around the world, to move economic and social development forward, and to promote and strengthen respect for human rights. Three years later – in 1948 – the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which laid the foundation for numerous international human rights treaties and for the creation of bodies and instruments to enforce and advance human rights protection.

Yet although human rights are, according to the Charter, one of the three pillars of the United Nations, the organisation only invests a small portion of its financial resources in this pillar. During the anniversary year of the United Nations, there will be much talk of the valuable system of human rights protection, even though UN Member States apparently do not place much value in this system.

Just 3.7 per cent of the total UN regular budget is earmarked for human rights protection (105.6 million US dollars in 2019[1]) under the aegis of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The OHCHR must meet two-thirds of its expenditures through voluntary contributions (179 million US dollars in 2019), the bulk of which are tied to specific activities. Neither the regular nor the voluntary contributions allow the OHCHR to reliably plan its operations, because more and more often States pay their membership dues late or, in the worst case, not at all, and the number of voluntary donor countries (66 in 2019) fluctuates from year to year, much like the contribution amount and the time of payment.

This precarious financial situation is faced with a continually growing set of responsibilities – responsibilities which the Member States have resolved to tackle and which, given the grave human rights violations occurring worldwide, are anything but dispensable. One of the key elements of the current UN system of human rights protection is the Human Rights Council (HRC), which provides a platform for victims and activists to be heard. It also includes at the present time more than 50 independent working groups and special rapporteurs who conduct mostly field research and make grievances public, as well as ten treaty bodies whose independent members, 172 in all, monitor implementation of the respective treaty. All of these experts work on a voluntary basis, but receive administrative support from the Office of the High Commissioner. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which was launched in 2006, has greatly enlarged the role and responsibilities of the OHCHR. It examines the human rights record of every Member State without exception, a process which holds considerable potential for national civil society and has already brought about substantial progress on the ground.[2] After all, the OHCHR is more than the secretariat for these bodies and experts, but also uses its expertise to act in a consultative and supportive capacity within the UN and has field offices in many countries and regions.[3] This is a non-exhaustive overview – and in the following, a more in-depth account – of a system which has for years been chronically underfinanced and is now on the brink of financial collapse.

An escalation foretold

The year 2019 saw the first public escalation of what had long been an open secret. On top of an already strapped budget and global cuts to nearly every budget line, which the General Assembly passed in 2017 and which included a 25 per cent reduction in travel resources for high-level experts such as special rapporteurs and members of the treaty bodies, came an acute liquidity crisis set off by the bad payment habits of many members, above all the United States. High Commissioner Bachelet therefore had no other option but to inform the ten human rights treaty bodies in April 2019 that in addition to cutbacks in all OHCHR activities, six of the treaty bodies would likely have to cancel their remaining sessions in 2019. In response, the Chairpersons of the treaty bodies aptly bemoaned in a letter to UN Secretary-General Guterres that it was “disturbing how easily liquidity problems and travel budgets could undermine the work of the treaty bodies”.

The outcry by civil society and the concerns of full-dues-paying Member States ultimately led to the UN being able to scrape together enough money from its coffers to fund the autumn 2019 sessions of the treaty bodies. But in early 2020 the ongoing liquidity crisis became acute again, this time having a visible impact upon the Human Rights Council. In its 43rd Regular Session, which began in February, conference services and in particular interpretation and translation services had to be reduced, and, with a few exceptions, meetings scheduled between 1pm and 3pm were cancelled – in other words, each day there were only seven instead of nine hours of discussions on human rights crises that had not all of a sudden become less severe. Very quickly, however, the COVID-19 pandemic became the overriding issue and relegated the financial problems to the background. The UN office responsible for conference services in Geneva diplomatically but firmly informed the delegations in May that the cost-intensive resumption of Council sessions would entail “non-budgeted costs”: “In light of the liquidity crisis of the organisation resulting from the substantial non-payment of the assessed contributions of Member States, these unplanned expenditures may very well need to be offset with a reduction in services in the second half of 2020, unless additional resources are made available.”[4]

The pandemic-related exigencies and debates are also threatening to divert attention from the extremely critical situation for the treaty bodies. The cancellation of all in-person meetings at least until the end of August was unavoidable due to the measures put in place by the Swiss authorities to contain the pandemic. Yet as early as June, a letter from the High Commissioner’s Office regarding the organisation’s prospects for the second half of the year stated that the financial crisis would “likely further exacerbate the situation. The persistent late and insufficient payment of contributions has reached a stage where the continuation of activities is hampered by a lack of resources.”[5] There is not enough money to pay travel costs of the treaty body members nor to finance the necessary administrative support provided by the respective secretariats of the OHCHR and by the interpretation and translation services, regardless if sessions are held in person or online. And since, in the view of the High Commissioner’s Office, there is little hope that the financial woes will improve, it thus cannot be ruled out that there will be no more in-person meetings held in Geneva in 2020. The Chairpersons of the treaty bodies responded to this announcement in no uncertain terms: “It would be a farce and a perversion of priorities if the tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic were used to conceal how the effectiveness of international human rights protection is being further impaired for financial reasons.”[6]

Financial woes are part of a broader crisis

The financial woes are thus threatening to cause the collapse of a system for protecting human rights, one that has taken the States decades to build up. However, before looking in detail at the consequences of such a collapse, it is necessary to place the financial crisis in a larger context. Firstly, the lack of resources for human rights protection has been a problem for many years; secondly, the financial difficulties are multifaceted and are not only having a virulent impact on human rights work; and thirdly, resource constraints are a major but only one part of the assault on human rights and the system for their protection.

The financial situation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was deemed at the UN Summit in 2005 to be precarious, but less so than before. In the run-up to the 2005 UN Summit, Secretary-General Kofi Annan had established a high-level panel whose report pointed out unequivocally the “clear contradiction”[7] between the then regular budget allocation of just under 2 per cent for the OHCHR and the obligation under the Charter to make the protection of human rights one of the principal objectives of the UN.

Annan made the cause his own and, in his own report for the 2005 World Summit, wrote: “While the role of the High Commissioner has expanded in the areas of crisis response, national human rights capacity-building, support for the Millennium Development Goals and conflict prevention, her Office remains woefully ill-equipped to respond to the broad range of human rights challenges facing the international community. Member States’ proclaimed commitment to human rights must be matched by resources to strengthen the Office’s ability to discharge its vital mandate.”[8] The General Assembly ultimately agreed to double the regular budget resources for the OHCHR over the next five years[9] – which forms the basis for the current 3.7 per cent.

It has been known for a long time that the human rights treaty bodies have inadequate resources, and this issue is being discussed intensively in the current process to reform the treaty bodies. Due to their growing responsibilities and the backlog in reviewing the States’ reports and individual complaints, in 2014 the UN General Assembly decided on a formula for allocating the required meeting time. It also called on the Secretary-General to “provide the corresponding financial and human resources.”[10] While the treaty bodies have already implemented many of the requested measures to achieve better coordination and improve their work, the resources required were not made available as allocated and the treaty body system was not able to utilise all of the approved meeting time due to insufficient staffing levels.[11] As a result, a number of States were able to escape a critical review of their human rights performance for too long and many victims could not count on support from the treaty bodies. The most recent Secretary-General report on the implementation of the resolution from 2014 lays outs in unsparing detail the shortcomings[12] and goes on to conclude that “the treaty body system needs to be sufficiently funded in a sustainable manner from the regular budget”.[13]

In addition to the small share of the UN’s core budget for the OHCHR, which stems from regular budget contributions, the voluntary donations from Member States are crucial but also not without problems. The fact that the payments fluctuate from year to year prevents, for example, the OHCHR from establishing effective human resource planning and from retaining qualified staff over the long term. The large proportion of earmarked contributions – i.e. funds tied to specific projects and activities – leaves the OHCHR with little flexibility to plan resources strategically, deploy them according to concrete needs and respond to short-term developments. Moreover, earmarked contributions are always also an instrument for donor countries to exert influence in favour of national interests that are potentially less human rights friendly. And last but not least, the shortfall in financing from the UN and its Member States encourages private donors to fill the gaps. Microsoft is by far the largest private donor to the OHCHR, with contributions totalling 850,000 US dollars in 2019.[14] The influence of private interests on international human rights protection must, at the very least, be viewed with caution due to the possible creation of dependencies.

This aspect of financial development is also not new, but it is a cause of concern and affects not only the OHCHR but many other UN institutions as well. The budget of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which is entirely voluntarily funded, is far from meeting actual needs, with corresponding consequences for refugees who rely on such aid for survival. What is new, however, is the growing unpredictability of payments and the unprecedented vehemence with which the US administration under President Trump has been cutting off funding to one multilateral organization after another or even withdrawing its membership altogether. The chief cause of the UN’s current liquidity crisis is the payments withheld by the United States, the biggest contributor to the organization, and other countries who feel emboldened to follow suit. Another example of this policy is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which is also financed entirely by voluntary contributions. The Agency faced a shortfall of almost one-third of its budget following the abrupt end to funding by the United States in 2018, and to this day has yet to make real headway towards restoring the lost funding. As a result, it is now basically operating on a month-to-month basis. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization is also facing the same challenge.

In addition to the United States, the Chinese and Russian governments bear considerable responsibility for the OHCHR’s empty coffers. Observers sometimes compare the negotiations on the UN’s highly complex budget, which take place in the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly at the end of each year, to an oriental bazaar. Here China and Russia are apparently among the masters in the art of pushing through cuts, especially in terms of conceding as few resources as possible to human rights work. The opaqueness of the process only allows speculation as to why more human rights-friendly States are unable or unwilling to do more to counter such practices.

The same applies to another UN body where China in particular is persistently torpedoing human rights work: ECOSOC’s Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations in New York decides which NGOs receive consultative status and whether to extend such status when it comes up for renewal. Such status provides NGOs with access to the human right bodies and enables them to submit written statements and make oral presentations to these bodies. Increasingly, decisions are being delayed, organisations are being strung along and long-standing accreditations are being challenged.

And finally, it is also the human rights discourse, especially in the Human Rights Council, that the Chinese government has for some years now been trying to influence in an equally blatant, strategically skilful and successful manner. Particularly illustrative of this is the resolution on “Promoting mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights”,[15] which was passed by a majority for the second time in 2020 and which aims to make human rights a matter of friendly cooperation between sovereign States instead of enforceable State obligations that protect individual rights. This particularly dangerous initiative is not the only case of States challenging established human rights standards and having their own interpretations legitimised by Council majorities. China’s actions[16] exemplify this practice, though they are by no means unique in using more than just financial resources to put increasing pressure on global human rights protection. Many actors[17] are simultaneously working to erode the normative and financial underpinnings of the UN’s human rights work.

The consequences of financially starving the system

The ongoing and now existential financial problems are as keenly felt by the OHCHR in Geneva as they are by the NGOs and activists who are fighting to improve human rights in their countries and who (must) rely on the support of the UN human rights institutions.

Given the across-the-board salary cuts[18] and often short fixed-term contracts, the working conditions for many of OHCHR’s approximately 1,100 staff members are anything but motivating. Correspondingly high staff turnover and changing areas of activity detrimentally affect not only the ability to provide continuous support to the human rights treaty bodies. Individual complaints, urgent action requests related to enforced disappearances,[19] and input for the UPR are handled primarily by the OHCHR team, who also prepare background notes and draft recommendations for decisions by the treaty bodies. Without competent and, where possible, consistent contact persons, the capacity to assist victims of human rights violations would also be considerably reduced.

In early May of this year, Marie Noemie Barbosa Gonzales from Colombia made the value of this work vividly clear to the Committee on Enforced Disappearances. For over five years she has been searching for her son, who was a victim of enforced disappearance in June 2014. In a moving personal testimony, she described how the Committee has since been helping her in her search by making persistent enquiries with the Colombian authorities. She said that although her son was unfortunately still missing, she found solace in knowing the Committee was providing assistance.[20]

For victims, activists and NGOs, given the shrinking space for civil society, the UN human rights bodies and procedures are often the only means available to document and address human rights violations, and to thus at least identify those actors and States responsible for the violations and, at best, hold them accountable. The personal encounters and the contact and networking opportunities are of great value to both civil society and UN actors alike. When a lack of financial and human resources makes it necessary to postpone or cancel sessions, to cancel visits by rapporteurs or fact-finding missions or to not publish reports, it becomes much more than a management problem.

In one of countless examples, the personal testimony of a Chilean activist to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in March 2020 illustrates this point. She and fellow campaigners have for many years been fighting against the construction of a hydroelectric power plant in Chile, which would have a massive impact on the environment and the rights of local communities. The Committee subsequently made explicit reference to this hydroelectric project in its information requests to the Chilean government,[21] thus possibly contributing to positive changes on the ground. If sessions are cancelled because of a lack of resources, State reviews may not take place until it is too late to prevent abuses.

In Sri Lanka, too, human rights activists have high hopes that UN special rapporteurs and treaty bodies will continue to critically review and discuss the human rights situation in their country. The political reform process there had since 2015 been closely monitored by six special rapporteurs whose mandate included making recommendations, which served as important references for human rights organisations. The country’s president, newly elected in 2019, is now showing a great reluctance to cooperate with the UN on human rights issues, and on top of this, the visits and referrals – and thus the support – of UN experts are at risk of being discontinued at a critical time due to a lack of resources. Sri Lanka was on the agenda for the most recent sessions of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Human Rights Committee (CCPR). These had to be cancelled because of COVID-19, but it shows the effect that cancellations caused by budgetary constraints would have. Close monitoring by the Geneva-based institutions can indeed have a significant protective impact on human rights actors on the ground.

The status quo is not an option

The outlook is undoubtedly bleak. In June, High Commissioner Bachelet stated that “the United Nations financial crisis is still hitting us all, with weak prospects of improvement”.[22] Secretary-General Guterres has already warned twice this year that the UN’s ability to function can no longer be guaranteed. The human rights protection system has, for all intents and purposes, already arrived at this point. It is no longer possible to fulfil mandated tasks in a way that meets the pressing needs of human rights defenders. Member States that have little interest in having their human rights record critically examined may feel emboldened by this development and try to cut funding even further. The UN’s credibility is being seriously damaged as a result.

In this context, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are harmful in two respects: It is easier to ignore the financial reasons for budget cuts, cancelled sessions and travel bans if the virus can be officially blamed for these restrictions. And if the pandemic-related online sessions prove to be feasible and travelling is regarded as dispensable, it could be tempting to use such grounds to justify further budget cuts in the future. This danger should not be underestimated, especially in view of the current deliberations on the reform of the human rights treaty bodies. The outcome of this process will be a yardstick of the Member States’ willingness to take genuine and real corrective action to prevent the financial paralysis of the human rights protection system, a paralysis that has long been galloping rather than creeping through the system.

About the author

Silke Voß-Kyeck is an expert on the United Nations and serves as a rapporteur for Forum Menschenrechte, a network of over 50 German non-governmental human rights organisations.


[1] All budget figures are from the most recent OHCHR annual report, UN Human Rights Report 2019, https://www2.ohchr.org/english/OHCHRreport2019/.

[2] Examples can be found in “The Butterfly Effect”, a report by the non-governmental organisation UPR Info, https://www.upr-info.org/sites/default/files/general-document/pdf/2016_the_butterfly_effect.pdf.

[3] See Clapham, Andrew: “The High Commissioner for Human Rights”, in Alston, Philipp/ Mégret, Frédéric (eds): The United Nations and Human Rights. A Critical Appraisal, Oxford 2020, pp. 667–607.

[4] Letter from the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) to the Member States’ delegations in Geneva, 22 May 2020.

[5] Letter from the High Commissioner's Office to the treaty body members, 16 June 2020.

[6] Letter from all Chairpersons of the treaty bodies to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 30 June 2020.

[7] “A more secure world: Our shared responsibility”, Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, UN Doc. A/59/565, 29 November 2004, para 290, https://www.un.org/ruleoflaw/files/gaA.59.565_En.pdf.

[8] “In larger freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all”, Report of the Secretary-General, A/59/2005, 21 March 2005, emphasis by the author, https://undocs.org/A/59/2005.

[9] “2005 World Summit Outcome”, UN Doc. A/RES/60/1, 16 September 2005, para 124, https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/generalassembly/docs/globalcompact/A_RES_60_1.pdf.

[10] “Strengthening and enhancing the effective functioning of the human rights treaty body system”, UN General Assembly Resolution 68/268, 9 April 2014, https://undocs.org/A/RES/68/268.

[11] “Status of the human rights treaty body system”, Report of the Secretary-General, A/74/643, para 43, https://undocs.org/A/74/643.

[12] Ibid., paras 51–57.

[13] Ibid., para 65.

[14] Donor profiles, including a breakdown of voluntary contributions, can be found in the OHCHR annual report, UN Human Rights Report 2019, https://www2.ohchr.org/english/OHCHRreport2019/documents/Donor-Profiles_compressed-1.pdf.

[15] “Promoting mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights”, Resolution of the 43rd session of the Human Rights Council, A/HRC/43/L.31/Rev.1, https://undocs.org/A/HRC/43/L.31/Rev.1.

[16] See Rosemary Foot, “China and the UN’s human protection agenda”, 15 June 2020, https://www.universal-rights.org/blog/china-and-the-uns-human-protection-agenda/.

[17] See Marc Engelhardt, Weltgemeinschaft am Abgrund. Warum wir eine starke UNO brauchen, Berlin 2018, p. 151.

[18] In 2018 salaries were cut by 7 per cent. Also cut were grants for training, travel costs and communications.

[19] This is a special procedure of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, see https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/CED/CED_leaflet_A4_EN.pdf.

[20] See press release by the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, 4 May 2020, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/


[21] See “List of issues prior to submission of the fifth periodic report of Chile”, E/C.12/CHL/QPR/5; https://


[22] “High Commissioner opening statement. Informal meeting of Chairs of treaty bodies”, 2–5 June 2020, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25918&LangID=E