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  • Access to United Nations Human Rights Documentation*
  • Laurie S. Wiseberg (bio)

I. Introduction

Although human rights is one of the three major pillars of the United Nations system, getting access to UN human rights information and documentation has never been easy. Some factors contributing to this are the way in which UN documentation is classified (by the UN body that generates them, rather than by subject); the low priority attached to human rights as compared, for example, with peace and security, coupled with the fact that many governments are not eager to see human rights reports widely disseminated; and the fact that, until recently, the UN Centre for Human Rights (now called the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights/ UN Centre for Human Rights—hereinafter HCHR/UNCHR) had resisted computerization and new methods of information handling. 1 HCHR/UNCHR [End Page 350] is the main secretariat responsible for servicing UN human rights bodies, and hence for generating and controlling the central core of UN human rights documentation.

Access to UN human rights documentation is further complicated by the reality that, not only are there a multiplicity of human rights bodies and mechanisms producing documentation, in recent years more and more other international bodies—for example, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNICEF, UNESCO, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank, as well as the General Assembly and the Security Council—have become increasingly concerned with and engaged in the human rights dimensions of their work. As the definition of human rights has expanded to embrace not only civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights, but also the right to development, the right to peace, the right to a healthy environment, etc., the amount of relevant documentation produced by UN bodies has become voluminous. This has, of course, been matched by a similar explosion in the general academic and activist literature on human rights, making the task of a human rights documentalist a daunting one.

There are some mitigating factors, foremost among them new information technologies that permit a documentalist to navigate more vast and complex areas than was conceivable even a decade ago. There has also been a significant change in the attitude of the HCHR/UNCHR towards new methods of handling information, which should greatly facilitate access to timely and comprehensive UN human rights information.

However, several caveats are in order. First, effectively managing information requires adequate resources. Now that the HCHR/UNCHR is prepared to enter the modern technological age—for example, it has made a commitment to develop a comprehensive World Wide Web (WWW) site of human rights information—it needs the resources to create and maintain such a site. Yet the resources (human and financial) of the HCHR/UNCHR remain pitifully inadequate. Human rights gets less than 2 percent of the UN budget, and the amount devoted to information handling is minuscule. In addition, the UN financial crisis has negatively impacted on information dissemination, including translation into all UN languages.

The second caveat is the danger that unless conscious efforts are made, access to UN human rights information will remain largely the preserve of the North. Many governments and nongovernmental organizations in the [End Page 351] South cannot readily access the World Wide Web. The sophisticated equipment that is necessary is either unavailable or too costly. Therefore, other methods for dissemination, such as ListServs, Conferences, Gopher sites, or CD-ROMs, must be developed.

The third caveat is that political forces still conspire against the free and full dissemination of human rights information. These issues will be explored more fully below.

II. What Human Rights Information Does the United Nations System Produce?

A. The Main Information-Producing Bodies

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Chart 1.

UN Commission on Human Rights and its Sub-Commission.

From a structural and historical perspective, human rights concerns fall under the purview of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and are dealt with in the General Assembly through the Third Committee. The UN Charter established a Commission on Human Rights, which meets annually for six weeks and reports to ECOSOC. 2 The Commission established a Sub...

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pp. 350-364
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