A positive Quaker initiative at the United Nations that was started almost 15 years ago came into sharp focus this week as a media storm descended on Raquel Rolnik, the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing. Encouraging governments to issue ongoing ‘Standing Invitations’ to the UN has been a long-standing project of the Quaker UN Office in Geneva (which also operates under the auspices for the Friends World Committee for Consultation). The concept has enjoyed much success since its inception with almost 100 states signing up. This week, the UK government’s own Standing Invitation, made in 2001, was ignored by the Conservative Party as they sought to condemn Raquel Rolnik’s concern about the bedroom tax.
Standing Invitations are a special invitation that a state issues to the United Nations allowing a visit at any time by the United Nations Human Rights Council’s thematic human rights mechanisms, known as ‘special procedures’. The first government to issue a Standing Invitation was Norway in March 1999. The UK followed in March 2001.
This week, Conservative Party chairman Grant Schapps went on record to complain about a visit from the UN Special Rapporteur on housing, Raquel Rolnik, visiting the UK. Grant Schapps said: “She absolutely wasn’t invited by the government and that’s why I’m writing to the UN Secretary General.”
“I can confirm that this was not something that was confirmed by the government, by a minister. What does happen is that when somebody comes over on official business, they have to have a visa signed off for that official business, but that’s quite different from the British government saying ‘yes, we’d like to have the UN come’.”
But by issuing a Standing Invitation, the UK government absolutely invited the UN visitor.
The Quaker United Nations Office came up with the idea of Standing Invitations with 4 aims in mind:
1. States demonstrate their commitment to co-operation with these procedures;
2. The procedure enhances the efficiency of the process by reducing delays and decreasing the administrative burdens on all parties;
3. They de-politicize the process of country visits by shifting the focus away from the question of access to questions of substance; and
4. They enable the procedures (individually and corporately) to plan and prioritize visits more effectively, knowing that the invitation to visit already exists and remains open.
According to a 2003 Friends World Committee for Consultation (Quakers) submission to the UN Human Rights Commission (that later became the Human Rights Council) “these consist of Special Rapporteurs, Special Representatives, Working Groups and Independent Experts who are charged with considering a specific human rights issue in relation to all countries in the world. As part of their work, the Special Procedures visit countries in order to examine at first hand the situation in relation to the issue in their mandate, and report to the Commission on these visits.”
To enable a visit to a state, the human rights ‘mechanism’ has to be invited by the state, though the process is usually initiated by the mechanism. Although some states do respond promptly, many take a long time or never respond.
“Since all the Special Procedures are established by resolution of the Commission on Human Rights in which all the Member States of the UN can participate and since country missions are part of the established methods, States should do their best to facilitate such visits,” said the 2003 Quaker statement, which was also by signed by a range of human rights organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
By 04/2013 there were 93 states that had issued Standing Invitations, which help to show confidence in the system and show that states have a commitment to human rights.