UN commissions of inquiry navigate between principle and pragmatism
Chemical weapons in the Syrian war, violation of human rights in North Korea and genocide in Myanmar: recent years many United Nations commissions of inquiry published shocking reports. Catherine Harwood studied those commissions and their roles and functions. On November 7 she will defend her PhD dissertation.
'I was interested in the United Nations’ practice of establishing international commissions of inquiry to examine situations of mass atrocities (‘UN atrocity-related inquiries’)', Harwood tells. 'UN atrocity-related inquiries are often asked to examine alleged violations of international law, and their findings and analysis garner significant attention. Yet, they remain non-judicial bodies whose reports are not legally binding. I was intrigued about how and why such inquiries are established and their roles and functions in the international legal order.'
Harwood identified around thirty UN atrocity0-related inquiries, most of which were established from 1992 onwards. She studied different stages of their lifecycle, namely the dynamics of their establishment, written mandates and commissions’ interpretations thereof, their working methods, legal analysis, findings and recommendations. 'Because inquiries examine different situations of concern, in a sense each one is idiosyncratic. By conducting comparative research, I aimed to identify more general trends and patterns concerning their engagement with international law and their broader roles and functions.'
The research finds that UN atrocity-related inquiries have the institutional dexterity to perform diverse roles and functions, which in turn shape the ways in which they engage with international law. Commissions seeking to promote accountability and the rule of law are linked to truth-seeking, giving a voice to victims, condemning violations and provoking corrective action. Such commissions have tended to use international law as a central frame of analysis. 'Yet, commissions also demonstrate an awareness of their liminal position between international law and politics. Commissions’ informality renders them well-placed to propose innovative legal interpretations, draw attention to violations and catalyze follow-up, while space is retained for diplomatic approaches and discretion in implementing recommendations.'
Prof. dr. L.J. van den Herik & prof. dr. C. Stahn about Catherine Harwood:
'Catherine Harwood is definitely the most diligent and reliable PhD researcher that we have ever supervised. She wrote a great and timely thesis and it was wonderful having her around at the Grotius Centre.'
Text: Floris van den Driesche
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