UNHCR’S Implied Human Rights Obligations

Do non-State actors such as International Organisations hold human rights obligations? If so, what do those rights entail, where they derive from and in what circumstances do they apply?UNHCR Refugee Camp

In an article recently published in the International Journal of Refugee Law, LIRC’s Dr Niamh Kinchin identifies the implied powers of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) as a potential catalyst for the creation of its human rights obligations. Implied powers are those powers that are not expressly provided for in an organisation’s constitution but ‘are conferred upon it by necessary implication as being essential to the performance of its duties’.[1] Dr Kinchin argues that UNHCR’s implied powers, plus its capacity to hold human rights obligations via attribution and its derivative international legal personality,[2] as well as its status as an organisation to which the ‘general rules of international law’ apply, gives rise to human rights obligations.

UNHCR has implied powers to administer refugee camps and conduct Refugee Status Determination (RSD). When the ‘quasi-sovereign’ character of camp administration is considered in light of the particular vulnerability of refugees’ human rights, Dr Kinchin claims that their protection cannot be separated from camp administration or from the camp administrator itself, meaning that UNHCR has an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of the inhabitants of the camps it administers. Dr Kinchin also argues that the unambiguous obligation for all parties that undertake RSD to respect non-refoulement, which is a human rights principle that is considered the ‘cornerstone’ of international protection, creates a concurrent obligation to ensure that RSD procedures are ‘fair, efficient and effective’. This is an obligation that UNHCR shares with States.

Although the identification of rights obligations of non-State actors inevitably faces challenges from the lack of available remedies for individuals who seek liability for human rights breaches, as long as UNHCR undertakes activities that places it in direct contact with individuals, it is imperative that it retains limited human rights obligations that exist alongside of, and not in substitution for, those of States.

Article Citation: Niamh Kinchin, ‘The Implied Human Rights Obligations of UNHCR’ (2016) 28(2) International Journal of Refugee Law 251-275

[1] Reparations for the Injuries Suffered in the Service of the United Nations (‘Reparations’) [1949] ICJ Rep 174, 182 (emphasis added).

[2] Derivative from the UN.

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