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UK Must Constructively Engage with UN Expert on Violence Against Women

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In 2014 Rashida Manjoo, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women, will visit the UK to conduct a fact-finding mission and report on human rights issues within the country. It is likely that she will discuss gender violence, rates of convictions for rape and sexual crimes, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, and honour killings, amongst others. The UK has two options: either to constructively engage with Ms Manjoo or to throw all of its toys out of the pram when she identifies areas in which the UK could do better regarding violence against women. Sadly, the UK has recent form in the latter option.

The recent visit of Raqel Rolnik, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing visited the UK. The government and media response to her visit was outrageous. As an independent expert, Professor Rolnik is required and allowed to request to visit any UN member state in order to identify best practices, areas of concern and provide recommendations. Despite Grant Shapps, the Chairman of the Conservative Party, stridently insisting that Ms Rolnik had no right to be in the UK, her visit was conducted 'at the invitation of the central government'. She carried it out only after extensively liaising with government officials, civil society actors, social landlords, academics and residents. Yet all of that seems to have been missed by the relevant government officials and ministers who labelled her a 'loopy Brazilian leftie' (Stuart Jackson MP) and called her report 'a Marxist diatribe' (Kris Hopkins, housing minister). National media attacked Ms Rolnik for visiting, saying 'she is from violent, slum-ridden Brazil, yet still attacks us on housing and human rights'. These responses highlight unnecessarily personal attacks which potentially border on racist, and also demonstrate fundamental misunderstandings of the role that the UN plays in protecting and promoting international human rights.

The reaction to Ms Rolnik's visit mirrors the Canadian response to Olivier de Schutter reporting on the right to food within that country. Jason Kenny, a Canadian minister, attacked that report, saying that the independent expert had wasted UN resources by visiting Canada when there are far graver violations occurring elsewhere. These two states, alongside others from the Global North, have taken on a pseudo-neo-imperialist approach to international human rights law. They seem to respect the value and role of human rights in other countries, and indeed contribute significant resources to protecting and promoting rights elsewhere. However, they see themselves as on a pedestal, acting as great bastions of human rights, and therefore not needing to be regulated by those very same legal mechanisms. Yet abuses occur everywhere, from Sweden to Somalia and from Norway to North Korea. The UN's role is to protect and promote rights across the world, and that includes in Global North countries. Indeed, the system's legitimacy and credibility depend on that universality, as do the victims of violations within all states.

UN special rapporteurs are independent experts who undertake their duties part-time and are not paid by the UN. They have significant expertise and experience in human rights, and are elected for three-year terms. As well as monitor, fact-find and report on human rights violations, the rapporteurs provide examples of best practice within states and targeted and general recommendations for protecting and promoting rights. To do this, they carry out country and regional visits, engage with government officials and local actors, and undertake field research. They take a hands-on approach, and are one of the few UN human rights mechanisms to carry out their work 'on the ground'. Special rapporteurs have been instrumental in developing compliance with the prohibitions against torture and extrajudicial killings, the protection of vulnerable groups such as migrants and internally displaced persons, and the rights to water and adequate sanitation. They have been described as 'the crown jewels of the UN human rights machinery'. As such, they must be respected and supported by all states, particularly those that champion and are at the fore of international human rights law.

The UK has issued a standing invitation to all UN independent experts. Ms Majoo, like Ms Rolnik before her, will still have submitted a visit request that will have been accepted by the government. Her visit will have been planned in consultation with all of the relevant actors. When she highlights areas of concern in terms of violence against women, and when she makes targeted recommendations to address those issues, the UK needs to keep its toys in the pram. The fallout from Ms Rolnik's visit, both within the UN and the international community, has been significant. What we cannot afford is a repeat of that situation when Ms Manjoo visits this year.