by Rhodri C. Williams
So here is the scenario. A wealthy Western country is early out in 2001 in extending a standing invitation to UN human rights rapporteurs to visit anytime they like. In doing so, they are taking up a Quaker initiative premised on the idea that the first step toward respecting human rights is willingness not be defensive about one’s own record.
Twelve years later, the UN Rapporteur on the right to housing announces the first visit by her mandate to said country, at a time of economic recession. Her initial PR and a subsequent set of preliminary findings praise the host country’s tradition of housing assistance for the poor and provide a reasoned set of criticisms of recent measures to deregulate private rental markets and ensure more efficient use of public housing stocks.
The response? Pandemonium. The chairman of the main party in the governing coalition speeds a letter to the UN Secretary General claiming that the rapporteur arrived uninvited, ignored the relevant government ministers and issued politically biased findings, suggesting “that the UN withdraw her claims” until a “full investigation” is carried out.
A national tabloid accuses her of being a Marxist witch while a conservative columnist is pleased to merely dismiss her as an idiot and a “Brazil nut”. She, of course being the (Brazilian) UN rapporteur Raquel Rolnik, and they being the Right Honourable conservative commentariat of the United Kingdom.
So. How has it come to pass that the United Kingdom, with its Magna Carta and its mother of parliaments is unable to engage in a reasoned dialogue with a UN human rights official? To express mild concerns about her criticism, promise to study them and let them slide gently toward the circular file like everyone else? Or conversely, why draw unnecessary attention to the report by engaging in shrill denunciation of UN activism (not to mention sexist and arguably racist ad hominem attacks on its author)?