Any lawyer working in a specific field of human rights will keep an eye out for the appointment of a special mandate in their area of expertise. My field is freedom of expression; as the legal director of the Media Legal Defence Initiative, an organisation that helps journalists worldwide defend their rights, knowing who the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression is, is important to me. Special Rapporteurs fulfill an important role in drawing attention to the key issues in their field, and help hold governments to account for human rights violations. David Kaye was appointed to the freedom of expression post in 2014, and has shown to be an excellent successor to Frank La Rue, who fulfilled the mandate in exemplary fashion from 2008 to 2014. Besides an excellent Special Rapporteur, David Kaye is also a man. As is Frank La Rue. As have all Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression been since the mandate was created in 1993.
In fact, of all 45 individual special mandate positions (so not including collective mandates such as Working Groups) appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, only 17 are currently occupied by women. Out of a total of 52 Special Procedures, 19 have never been held by a woman. This includes 11 that – like the Rapporteurship on Freedom of Expression – have had more than one mandate holder. For an organisation that emphasises “the equal rights of men and women“ in the preamble of its constitutive document and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that is a disappointing state of affairs.
While distribution of special mandate posts on freedom of expression is fairly balanced worldwide with Dunja Mijatović fulfilling the mandate of Representative on Freedom of the Media at the OSCE and Pansy Tlakula as the African Union Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, the picture that emerges on gender balance in the broader category of special mandate positions in international systems does not look great. In the Inter-American system, most rapporteurships are divided between the Commissioners who act as rapporteurs. The only exception is the Rapporteurship on Freedom of Expression that has an independent Special Rapporteur. With a total of 66 Commissioners since its establishment in 1959, amongst which only 11 women can be counted, the Inter-American Commission usually has to assign more than one mandate to women Commissioners to try to keep a balance. In the case of the Freedom of Expression rapporteurship, there have been five mandate holders since its establishment in 1998 and only one has been a woman. Overall, the African Union appears to be doing better with a total of four out of five individual mandates being occupied by women today.
The qualities of the current Special Rapporteurs notwithstanding, the lack of equal gender representation is a situation that should change: having these prominent positions taken up by mostly male candidates does not do justice to the standards of equality the organisations that created these mandates are supposed to represent. The recently launched GQUAL campaign states that “Women are underrepresented in virtually all international bodies responsible for monitoring and developing international law, human rights, and international relations, both in the United Nations and in regional organizations in the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Europe. … [I]n order to promote equality, the institutions created to protect human rights must reflect this principle in their composition and actions.” GQUAL aims to get more women nominated and elected across international bodies by changing the practices, rules, and guidelines that regulate the nomination and voting processes through which candidates are selected.
Where do we begin to make sure that, three years from now, women are equally represented in international tribunals and monitoring bodies? The GQUAL campaign starts by aiming to get States to commit to and international bodies to adopt standards guaranteeing gender parity as a consideration and a goal in appointment and election procedures. This important first step is complemented by a strategy to increase transparency: the GQUAL campaign will work with States and international organisations to make more information available on open positions and their criteria and processes for selection. Organisations will be held accountable by measuring progress (or lack thereof) towards more balanced gender representation. This will contribute to raising awareness on the issue and assist campaigners in advocating for change.
The next step, after setting up this normative framework and increasing transparency, is the setting of quota for equal gender representation. This is not yet part of the GQUAL campaign, but it is my hope this will be incorporated as its strategy develops further. While the common kneejerk reaction is that merits should decide who gets appointed to a certain position, there is abundant research-based evidence that shows that, even with completely identical qualifications, women will generally draw the short end of the straw when competing for a post with a man. This reality cannot be ignored: no matter how much we’d perhaps want to, it is very difficult for human beings to overcome their own inherent bias. However: quotas can contribute to change, even if the jury is still out on whether or not they manage to address the deeper-rooted obstacles women face in accessing positions of power and really are effective in all situations. They help change the landscape, which will eventually contribute to changing mindsets.
Many international organisations maintain a quota system when it comes to matters like regional representation. So why not set up a similar system for gender representation? Some international tribunals and bodies have developed guidelines and mechanisms to promote women’s equal representation, such as the International Criminal Court, and the European Court of Human Rights. For the election of Special Procedures, States are mandated to pay “due consideration” to gender representation. However, even these institutions have not been able to achieve gender parity or to sustain it. If you consider that the principle of equality and non-discrimination is central to most of the constitutive documents of international organisations and core human rights treaties, it is actually quite puzzling that such a quota system isn’t broadly applied already.
The next round of appointments for the UN Special Rapporteur positions is 2016. Some Rapporteurs will stay on for an additional term and hopefully continue doing the excellent job they are doing now. But when the time does come for some of them to step down, I hope an equally excellent, female, candidate will succeed them. This type of change is long overdue.