Increasingly, the categories of professionalism are being employed to describe human rights work. Within the broader category of ‘human rights professionals’, a significant sub-group, that of field-based human rights staff of intergovernmental organizations, has been subject to particular scrutiny. This article explores issues of the professionalization of this group, while drawing implications for all human rights field workers. Following a brief overview of the history of human rights field operations, the question is raised: what is at stake in a process of professionalization? Next, it is asked whether those components identified as central to the development of a profession – shared values, a body of scientific knowledge, and procedures and systems to apply that knowledge – exist in a reasonably well-defined form with reference to human rights work. We then take stock of the extent to which these components have come together in generating an actual sense of professional identity and a culture of professionalism. In conclusion, some remaining challenges are identified and suggestions are made for measures that may contribute to reinforcing the existing momentum and further consolidating the profession.
Professionalism and Professionalization
Early in 1994, one of the present authors (M.O'F.) set out from Zagreb to Sarajevo to establish a human rights field office of the United Nations (UN). Travelling alone, he drove a jeep packed with valuable electronic equipment across the various combat zones and front lines of Bosnia-Herzegovina without the benefit of a security briefing, a communications system, or even a puncture-repair kit. Having arrived in the Bosnian capital, miraculously unscathed, he was under vague instructions to report back to Geneva on ‘the human rights situation’ and otherwise had carte blanche – there were neither templates for the reports nor guidelines regarding any of the ethical, technical, and organizational challenges he would confront. He survived the experience and, hopefully, did some useful work.
His experience was by no means unique, as human rights field work at that time was in its very early stages and was subject to a process characterized by improvization, adaptation, and learning by doing. In the decade and a half that has passed since, the international community has undertaken an increasing number of human rights field operations and has, on this basis, generated a highly valuable body of experience which in turn has led to the definition of working methodologies and operational procedures.1 In this context, the work of human rights field officers has begun to take on the traits of a distinct professional identity. This article seeks to explore this process of professionalization with a view to identifying at what stage it may presently rest and what directions it might take for the future.
The process of professionalization has been described as ‘an informal process begun by practitioners who perceive there to be exacting standards required of their activities which make it necessary to exclude amateurs’ (Lewis, 2008). Drawing on the observations of such well-established specialist groups as medical doctors, lawyers, and theologians, as well as more newly formed professions such as, for example, psychiatry and humanitarian assistance, commentators have suggested that the core elements for a professional group are: (i) a set of shared values, (ii) a body of scientific knowledge, and (iii) systems to apply that knowledge (Schein, 1973). They have observed that professional identity is communitarian since the professional cannot work in complete isolation from fellow-professionals (Schon, 1991). They also argue that professionalism implies a form of service to those who can benefit from an application of the specialist scientific knowledge. This latter point, at least in part, counters concerns that the process of professionalization may be no more than the erection of a ‘closed shop’ with a view to protecting vested interests and aggrandizements of the group (Sercombe, 2004a).
Increasingly, the language and categories of professionalism are being employed to describe human rights work (Bell and Coicaud, 2007). It has become commonplace to describe this as a professional calling, and the individual human rights worker, accordingly, is considered to have a discrete professional identity. Within the broader category of ‘human rights professionals’, a significant sub-group, that of human rights staff of intergovernmental organizations who are working in field environments, has been subject to particular scrutiny because of the scale of their deployment and the extent to which many of the primary challenges, complications, and demands of human rights work come to the fore in the context of operations in conflict, post-conflict, and other emergency or developmental situations. This analytical focus is also being adopted in this article, so while many of the findings may in fact be attributable to human rights professionals generally, the primary focus of the investigation is on the work and professional identity of human right field officers (HRFOs) of intergovernmental organizations.
The analysis in what follows is undertaken in a series of stages moving from the general to the specific. Following a brief overview of the history of human rights field operations from 1991 to 2008, the question is raised: what is at stake in a process of professionalization, and in particular, why is it important to professionalize the work of HRFOs? Next, it is asked whether the three main components identified as central to the development of a profession – i.e. shared values, a body of scientific knowledge, and procedures and systems to apply that knowledge – exist in a reasonably well-defined form with reference to human rights work. Turning then to the actual situation on the ground, we seek to take stock of the extent to which these components have come together in generating an actual sense of professional identity and culture of professionalism for human rights field workers. In conclusion, some remaining challenges are identified and suggestions are made for measures that may contribute to reinforcing the existing momentum and further consolidating the profession.
A number of the views presented in this chapter are informed by the findings of a research project Consolidating the Profession: The Human Rights Field Officer. This inter-disciplinary and multi-institutional project was implemented during 2004–2008.2 It sought to identify the professional parameters of human rights field work and to generate empirical and qualitative findings, analysis, guidance, and training materials intended to enhance the process of professionalization. In the latter parts of the article, we will focus particular attention on some of the main project outputs, notably the results of surveys conducted in 2004 and 2008 and a set of Guiding Principles for Human Rights Field Officers.
A Brief History of Human Rights Field Operations, 1991 to 2008
The first human rights field workers of intergovernmental organizations were deployed to El Salvador in 1991 (Brody, 1995: 153; García-Sayán, 2000; Whitfield, 2000),3 and rapidly thereafter to Cambodia (Kirby, 1995: 26; Adams, 2000; McNamara, 2000),4 Haiti (O'Neill, 1995, 2001; Granderson, 2000; Martin, 2000b),5 and former Yugoslavia (Minear et al., 1994; Kenny 1995; Benedek et al., 1999; Line, 2007).6 The year 1994 saw the establishment of a field programme in Rwanda (Clarance, 1995; Howland, 1999; Martin, 2000a).7 While deployed principally by the UN, human rights officers were also to be found in the field programmes of the Organisation of American States (OAS)8 and the then Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (Ringgaard-Pedersen and Lyth, 2007).9 In each case, the deployment of human rights officers constituted an urgent response to the threat of, or the consequences of, grave abuses on the ground (Katayanagi, 2002). The profusion of such initiatives in the early 1990s is related to the contemporary optimism regarding multilateral peace-related responses to conflicts (O'Flaherty, 2007a).
As observed at the outset of this article, the deployment of human rights field workers preceded the development of any institutional support systems that could give them appropriate substantive and administrative guidance. Indeed, the deployment even came ahead of a sense of what precise function they should perform. To the extent that they were mandated at all, human rights field operations focussed on the investigation and reporting of violations of international human rights law (with a firm emphasis on conflict-related civil and political human rights violations) and the training of national law enforcement officials (Hanski and Suski 1997; O'Flaherty, 2003, 2004a). The staff themselves came from a wide variety of backgrounds, most with a legal education and many with experience in non-governmental organizations and diplomacy. Recruitment was often done in a great rush (albeit it could take many months for the contracts to be issued), was occasionally not at all transparent, and much store placed in a candidate's ability to re-locate to the field as quickly as possible. All human rights officers were ‘international’, that is, not nationals of the countries in which they would work. Very few recruits received training either before travelling to the field operations or in-service. Only the most senior staff delivered end-of-service de-briefs, and then generally at their own initiative.
The deployment of human rights officers continued through the 1990s, including in a profusion of missions across Africa, in Liberia (Nowrojee, 1995; Cain, 1999; Clapham and Martin, 2000),10 Angola (Howland, 2007),11 Sierra Leone (O'Flaherty, 2004a, b, 2007c; CHD, 2003),12 and elsewhere (Turner, 2007) and within the framework of the UN's efforts in East Timor (Devereux, 2005; Burgess, 2007).13 The East Timor mission ultimately became a form of transitional government and it, together with the mission in Kosovo, delivered novel responsibilities for human rights programming (Jones, 2000; Devereux, 2005). The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) assumed responsibility for large programmes in countries of the former Yugoslavia (Ringgaard-Pedersen and Lyth, 2007). The UN deployments took a variety of forms, with many as components of peacekeeping operations (Brahimi Report, 2000).14 In a small number of cases, the field programmes were under the guidance of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).15 A modest incremental improvement occurred in the provision of guidance and support to field officers through the 1990s. UN recruitment procedures grew more systematic, and there were sporadic occurrences of pre-deployment briefings (especially for the heads of missions) and in-service training. Independent initiatives, such as the expert consultations organized by the Aspen Institute (Henkin, 2000),16 were generating elements of a field work doctrine – for instance, regarding the need to balance monitoring activities with programmes of capacity building and the importance of addressing violations of economic, social, and cultural rights as well as of civil and political rights.
The early years of the new millennium witnessed significant developments. The 2000 publication of a ‘Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations’, the so-called ‘Brahimi Report’ (Brahimi Report, 2000), triggered a process of the mainstreaming of attention to human rights in peacekeeping operations with a concomitant raising of the profile of the discreet human rights units of such missions, as seen for instance in the operations deployed to Afghanistan, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the same time, the OHCHR grew more assertive in deploying its own personnel to the field; thus commenced the practice of placing an OHCHR expert within the UN ‘country teams’, initially in Sri Lanka and Nepal. OHCHR also, in 2003, re-established the practice, previously seen in just one instance – the opening of a Cambodia office, of putting in place follow-on missions to take over human rights functions of departing peacekeeping operations. Such an office was, for instance, established for Angola. In 2005, the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, declared that her Office would become more present on the ground, ‘in a sustained manner’. That year she established programmes in Nepal and Uganda. As of the end of 2007, OHCHR had 11 country offices. It was also supporting the work of 17 human rights programmes of peacekeeping operations, and deployed human rights advisors to UN country teams in 13 countries. OHCHR also maintained eight regional offices across the world.17 As of 2005, approximately 16% of the staff of human rights field operations were reported to be nationals of the country in which they were deployed (Larrabure and Fall, 2006) – a notable change from the early days. Developments during this decade regarding delivery to HRFOs of vocational, methodological, and training guidance and support are discussed further below.
The very brief historical survey presented above demonstrates the extent to which a human rights field sector has emerged: a significant cadre of officers, deployed to a wide range of challenging locations, and all united in the goal of the promotion and protection of human rights. The following sections will examine the extent to which they can be categorized as members of a shared profession. As a first step towards taking stock of this, it will be helpful to elaborate more specifically what is at stake in a process of professionalization. In particular, why is it important to professionalize the work of HRFOs and what are some of the potential disadvantages? We wish, in this connection, to point to four primary considerations.
To work for an international human rights operation, first, means to administer a sensitive public mandate with corresponding obligations of rigorous conduct and accountability. This is in one way or another true of all professional activity, yet human rights work in the field is by its very nature particularly volatile and charged and hence all the more in need of standardized operational procedures, institutional safeguards, monitoring, regulation, and accountability. This, in essence, is what professionalization is about. The context in which the HRFO operates is typically one of recent traumatization, deep-seated social imbalances, imminent violence, and widespread urgent needs. In such situations, disparate voluntary interventions based on benevolence clearly mark an inadequate response and in fact entail a risk of compounding the existing problems. Interestingly, the vocation of humanitarian assistance, which shares many traits with human rights field work and operates in similarly charged conditions, has, in recent decades, been squarely confronted with the disadvantages of leaving too much scope to amateurs and charitable organizations – well intending as they may be – and for this reason launched an intensive campaign during the 1990s to professionalize the work of humanitarian assistance (Walker, 2004; O'Flaherty, 2007b). The human rights field is now embarking on a similar trajectory towards professionalization (to some extent inspired by accomplishments in the humanitarian field) and needs to be supported in this endeavour.
There is, secondly, an important utilitarian dimension to the notion of professionalism in so far as this implies (or ought to imply) enhanced and more effective service delivery. To serve as a professional in a given field means to work on the basis of accumulated knowledge (which is usually obtained through accredited degree courses or other professional training) and within a context of established institutional structures (UNEP-IETC, 2003; APEGGA, 2004). The emergence and consolidation of a new profession, accordingly, presupposes an institutionally embedded processing of experience with a view to systematically correcting dysfunctionalities and identifying and reinforcing more productive ways of doing things – what in contemporary jargon is described as ‘best practices’. Textbooks, manuals, compilations of guidelines, and other similar documents chronicle the lessons of such accumulated experience and in so doing help to define the parameters of a profession (Bell and Coicaud, 2007).
Professionalization has important consequences, thirdly, for the way in which practitioners identify themselves. Established disciplines such as medicine and law testify to the remarkable intensity with which practitioners may take pride in their professional identity, and new professions typically seek to achieve a similar effect, e.g., by adopting codes of professional ethics which serve not only as tools for regulation, but also as common statements of commitments and aspirations from which individual practitioners may glean purpose and direction (Murray, 2003). A profession, moreover, furnishes a structured context within which to pursue career ambitions and strives both to do good for others through excellent work performance and to obtain rewards for oneself in the form of a good salary, job promotions, and interesting/fulfilling work experiences.
To professionalize a given field of activity, fourthly, profoundly impacts the way in which actors are positioned vis-à-vis one another, and notably the relations that pertain between the professional and the clients/beneficiaries of his or her work.18 In essence, a professional relationship is not personal, commercial, or utilitarian; rather, it has a peculiar quality of impersonal commitment and obligation that involves acting on the basis of expert knowledge, in accordance with set principles, and in compliance with established methods and procedures. Relationships of this nature are sometimes described as inherently ethical,19 and aptly so as long as one remembers that ‘ethics’ in this connection is to be taken in the restrictive sense of ‘professional ethics’ (rather than ethics as a comprehensive scheme of life aspirations and obligations).
The embedding of relations within a professional framework takes on a special significance when it comes to work in the area of human rights. What is essential is that the promotion and protection of human rights is emphatically not a matter of charity but rather an entitlement of all human beings. The delivery of human rights-related services, therefore, cannot be understood merely as optional or something done out of the goodness of one's heart. Rather, it has the character of an obligation – in the first instance on the part of States – that can only be fulfilled through professional service delivery. Whereas charity may have the unfortunate consequence of placing the recipient in a position of inferiority and moral debt, which can be humiliating and disempowering, human rights work, when undertaken in a professional manner, must never do this. To the contrary, it should be guided by a commitment to help to empower individuals to claim and protect their own rights (Ulrich, 2007a: 83; 2007b: 56f).
As noted by way of introduction, a possible disadvantage to professionalizing an area of work that has previously been undertaken on a less regulated, and to a considerable extent, voluntary basis is that this may have the effect of disqualifying, and thus excluding, some groups of practitioners, who in fact may have something very valuable to offer. Given the way in which human rights field work, in particular, tends to take place in the contexts of relative isolation or marginalization from the mainstream international community, and with limited human resources, this may be a serious concern. A key challenge therefore consists in framing professionalization in an inclusive manner in order to also address the situation and needs of practitioners who come to the field through non-conventional channels, typically from the civil society sector or from other professional backgrounds. Nationals of the countries in which human rights field operations take place constitute a particularly important group that needs to be professionally empowered rather than de-legitimized by formal regulations and operational procedures.
A related possible disadvantage has to do with the risk that measures associated with the formal regulation and standardization of procedures may have the effect of bureaucratizing and depersonalizing work involvements rather than boosting a sense of professional identity and pride. Professionalization, in other words, could render human rights field work simply a job like any other – and moreover a source of comparatively lucrative employment that stands in stark contrast to the plight of the local communities suffering violations of their human rights. This, certainly, would be a cause for concern. Typically, work in the human rights field is driven by passionate personal commitments and some element of personal sacrifice, and even as work procedures become better regulated and standardized, it is essential to retain this. It is for this reason that the focus on the underlying ethical commitments of human rights professionals is so important to the overall process of professionalization. Educational institutions have a central role to play in fostering an ethos of engaged and compassionate professionalism, as do the main international organizations that dispatch human rights workers to the field.
Model Professional Identity of the HRFO
The next step of the analysis consists in identifying the key parameters of professionalism for HRFOs. This will be done based on the tripartite analytical framework employed by Schein and widely accepted as constitutive of any profession, namely (i) a set of shared values, (ii) a body of scientific knowledge, and (iii) systems and procedures to apply that knowledge (Schein, 1973).
A review of the existing structures and practices reveals that the primary components for professionalizing the work of HRFOs are in fact all there. After several decades of standard-setting and progressively more focused human rights implementation – among which the experience of the international community in organizing human rights field operations figures prominently – it is evident that human rights work is now guided by a reasonably well-defined set of core values; the human rights community does possess a complex and diverse body of knowledge that is characterized by scientific rigor; and it applies this knowledge in practice within the framework of an elaborate system of mechanisms and set procedures for the realization of human rights.
It is thus possible to give a quite clear and coherent definition of what it means to be human rights professional. In practice, however, it will be found that the realization of such a model professional identity falls short of the existing potential. There is still, in other words, important work to be done in forging and consolidating a vibrant culture of professionalism for human rights workers. This will be taken up again in the concluding sections of the article following a summary review of values, knowledge, and systems of implementation.
What Are the Values Guiding Human Rights Professionals?
Work in the area of human rights is guided by a commitment to values on (at least) three different levels. These are the values and normative principles explicitly contained in international human rights instruments, a set of broader and more loosely defined values underlying human rights, and certain values of professionalism as typically enshrined in mission statements, codes of conduct, operation manuals, and other authoritative documents of the institutions for which one works. Each of these will be briefly considered in turn.
Human rights professionals, as an obvious point of departure, are responsible for upholding the standards of human rights in their personal conduct20 and should, in their professional endeavours, be guided by the objective to protect and promote human rights to the maximum extent possible.21 International and regional human rights instruments, moreover, express a far-reaching normative commitment to the integrity, dignity, and equal worth of all human beings, and many of the specific human rights standards, while primarily aimed at defining obligations for States, also have direct implications for how individual human beings should interact and treat one another. Human rights, in other words, are profoundly ethical in nature, and to work as a professional in this area implies an unwavering commitment to the values and principles enshrined in the international instruments.
While by and large uncontroversial, the immediate reference to human rights is not sufficient to guide the conduct of professionals. A primary reason for this is that the horizontal application of human rights norms is generally not well understood, in particular, when it comes to individual obligations. There is thus a certain conceptual gap between the level at which human rights norms are articulated and the actual issues confronting professionals on the ground. To narrow this gap it is sometimes helpful to shift the focus from the human rights standards themselves to the essential values and aspirations underlying human rights. Here one can mention, for example, the famous four freedoms announced by President Roosevelt in 1941 (freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear (Roosevelt, 1941)), but also a broader range of values from which human rights norms have been derived and on which they continue to depend that may be seen to inform and guide the conduct of human rights officers. These include values such as universal human dignity, social justice, the basic equality of all human beings, equality of the sexes, the principle of non-discrimination, empowerment and self-realization of the individual, respect for life, respect for cultural diversity, and so forth.
Given the persistence with which relativist objections continue to be levelled against human rights in various contexts (An-Na'im, 2005a, 2007), one might expect that values articulated in relatively vaguer terms, such as those indicated above, would be subject to even more dispute and contention. Yet experience suggests that the opposite may in fact be true (An-Na'im, 2005b). Individuals of different cultural and religious backgrounds who work with human rights in a professional capacity do, in fact, widely embrace the type of general values enumerated above and view this as part and parcel of their dedication to human rights. Indeed, the application of the values in specific situations will often be subject to differences of interpretation; however, when properly framed, this need not be regarded as a hindrance, but can rather serve as an occasion to stimulate a constructive discussion about how best to understand and realize human rights.
A third value-related aspect of professionalism has to do with the obligation to act loyally and in conformity with the mandates and key operational procedures of the organizations for which one works. This is particularly important in connection with international human rights field operations, given that they are established in areas marred by recent violent conflict and serious geo-political, regional, and/or ethnic divisions. In such situations, the work of the international community is at one and the same time imperative and fragile, and the calling of professionalism requires strict compliance with the essential operational procedures, making it possible to get the work done in a safe and reliable fashion.
As any profession matures, it is commonplace that the most basic and important value commitments are codified in the form of authoritative codes of conduct, ethics guidelines, or statements of ethical commitments. A first attempt at drafting such a document for human rights professionals has been undertaken in the context of the project Consolidating the Profession: The Human Rights Field Officer with the generation of a Statement of Ethical Commitments of Human Rights Professionals.22 It was realized through an extensive process of consultation involving experienced human rights workers from many different parts of the world and testifies to a remarkable degree of tacit consensus about core values and commitments among those actually working in the field. This, indeed, forms the first pillar of an on-going process of professionalization.
What Is the Body of Scientific Knowledge for Human Rights Field Workers?
It is axiomatic that the starting point for identification of the requisite body of formal knowledge for a human rights professional is international human rights law. While the precise function and specialization of an individual professional will dictate the level of knowledge required, it can be proposed that all professionals have some understanding of the diverse areas of law. These areas can be categorized by source and subject categories. The principal source is the corpus of UN-sponsored human rights treaties: the two covenants,23 the conventions on racial discrimination24 and discrimination against women,25 the torture convention,26 the child rights,27 the migrant workers rights,28 and the disability convention.29 Taking account of the environments in which HRFOs work, it is suggested that it also include treaties that are sometimes designated as outside the cluster of human rights treaties such as the Genocide Convention30 and the Refugee Convention.31 Knowledge of international humanitarian law is likewise indicated, taking account of both the typical operating environments and the nature of field mission mandates (albeit the levels of requisite knowledge will vary according to circumstance and specialization). Knowledge of the law must also include regional treaties relevant to the professional's place of deployment. Customary international law needs to be taken account of, in particular, those elements of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that are considered to have attained that status (Meron, 1989; Roberts, 2001: 757; Orakhelashvili, 2006).
Every professional needs at least a basic understanding of all subject categories of human rights law and, in particular, of treaty provisions for the protection of economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights. United Nations General Assembly resolutions would add to this list a ‘right to development’.32 A bare knowledge of the legal texts is clearly insufficient, and the professional must also be aware of the relevant jurisprudence and commentary within his or her area of expertise. The findings of the regional human rights courts are of particular significance as are the General Comments of the human rights treaty bodies.33 One may add to the list of requisite areas of knowledge the ‘soft law’ outputs relevant to specific specializations. For instance, it is important for professionals addressing human displacement issues to be intimately familiar with the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement34 and for professionals assisting national human rights institutions to know the ‘Paris Principles’.35 Other soft law sources include such materials as outputs of world conferences that are relevant to a particular specialization.
One additional body of knowledge related to human rights law may be mentioned, that is, some understanding of the origins and theoretical foundations of the international human rights legal system (Aeijaz, 2001). Taking account of the extent to which people in various regions and from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds question such fundamental tenets as the indivisibility of human rights, it may be argued that the human rights professional needs to be equipped with an ability to explain, defend, and rationally justify the system.
While it is suggested that some minimum knowledge of human rights and related law is necessary for all human rights professionals, we do recognize that human rights officers may well locate their primary knowledge base in another discipline. Field experience has long demonstrated the utility of deploying human rights officers who are expert in such disciplines as development, political science, economics, anthropology, forensics, and pedagogy. However, we suggest that the utility of such knowledge depends on the extent to which it is calibrated to human rights work. The knowledge base should include an explicit reflection in this regard.
It is imperative that knowledge is tailored and specifically related to the location in which human rights field work is conducted. With regard to human rights law, this requires that the professional have an adequate understanding of the extent of the relevant State's international legal obligations. Thus, the professional should be aware of which treaties have been ratified, what reservations may have been made, and the existence or otherwise of a state of emergency. Depending on the nature of a specialization, some understanding is needed of the domestic framework for the protection of human rights, including the relevant constitutional arrangements, the judicial system, the responsibilities for human rights within government, and the existence and operation of any national human rights institutions. An understanding of the domestic human rights system may require knowledge of parallel legal systems, especially those of a traditional or religious nature. Other elements of the local human rights knowledge base include country-specific findings of international monitoring mechanisms, including regional courts, human rights treaty bodies, and findings of the Special Procedures and the Universal Period Review Procedure of the UN Human Rights Council, as well as findings of regional organisations. The ‘localization’ of formal knowledge also extends to a need for an understanding of the specific human environment. This will typically embrace a basic understanding of the local society, its politics, mores, gender relations and history, as well as a grasp of the socio-economic situation.
What Systems and Tools Are Required to Apply Knowledge?
Human rights professionals deliver services in support of human rights protection and promotion. As such, they may engage with a range of systems that are common to, and available for, all human rights service providers. Such systems take judicial, quasi-judicial, governmental, diplomatic, and other forms and exist at the national, regional, and global levels. These generic protection systems are widely familiar and need not be further elaborated in the present context. What is of interest is the delineation of systems that are specific to HRFOs.
The first requirement is for the existence of entities/organizations that deploy field officers. There are an increasing number of such organizations. Within the intergovernmental sector – the particular concern of this chapter – they include the UN, the OSCE, the African Union, the OAS, and the European Union. These bodies legitimize their human rights field work on the basis of general organizational functions, explicit and implied powers, and location-specific mandates. In addition to powers and mandates, the organizations need to have in place systems to enable and support the delivery of services. Such systems should address issues of both substance and administration.
The primary system addressing issues of substance is the panoply of tools and methods for the application of formal human rights knowledge for effective human rights protection. This is an area that is still rather loosely defined and subject to a certain degree of improvization in the field. To contribute to the on-going process of professionalization, the Consolidating the Profession: The Human Rights Field Officer project36 undertook an extensive questionnaire survey in 2004, which was aimed, first, at identifying the essential functions and tools of human rights field professionals and, secondly, at ascertaining how well, and specifically how, such functions are being supported by the relevant international organizations. In 2008, a follow-up survey was undertaken, primarily with a view to obtaining up-to-date feedback on existing resources and professional support mechanisms as well as the perception among practitioners of available career development possibilities. These issues will be taken up again in the next section, whereas the identification of core functions and work areas for HRFOs figures as a crucial part of the model identity that we are seeking to elaborate here.
Responses to the 2004 questionnaire,37 which was distributed to 80 current and former senior staff of field missions, highlight a number of common vocational priorities and clearly discernible trends. In the first question, the respondents were asked to define, in general terms, notwithstanding specific mission mandates, the essential role and functions of an HRFO deployed by an international organization to a conflict or post-conflict situation. While the definitions provided by the respondents – some of them very detailed, others rather general – differ in several respects, certain key components appear in almost all of them, notably: monitoring the human rights situation, reporting human rights abuses, assisting local actors through capacity building and partnerships, and providing assistance and human rights-based advice to other international actors. Other functions, such as, e.g., support to peace processes and transitional justice, were more sporadically mentioned, yet clearly also pertain to the range of functions of relevance to HRFOs.
The 2008 questionnaire survey38 had 44 respondents (none of whom had participated in the 2004 exercise), almost all (42 out of 44) currently working in a function directly related to a human rights field mission of an international or regional organization (primarily UN and OSCE), either as a head of such mission, or as a human rights officer/adviser, or as a desk officer in the headquarters supporting a mission. Although most respondents found it difficult to concisely capture the role of an HRFO in a simple definition, the answers tended to tally with those provided in 2004 with reference to the activities of monitoring, reporting, and capacity building. A striking departure from the previous survey, however, was that more emphasis was placed on advocacy and intervention activities as core functions of the HRFO. Advocacy, in fact, emerged as the function perceived to be most important by respondents to the 2008 survey. Other functions, such as those related to analysis and research, involvement in peace and transitional justice processes, and engagement with humanitarian and development partners, were also recurrent in the respondents' answers. Overall, this confirms that the functions of the field officer remain varied and tend to change depending on the specific context encountered on the ground as well as the presence of other key actors in the field.
On the basis of the survey findings, the Consolidating the Profession: The Human Rights Field Officer project consulted with field officers worldwide and ultimately generated a set of Guiding Principles for Human Rights Field Officers Working in Conflict and Post-conflict Environments. The Guiding Principles propose five principal functions/tools for the HRFO: monitoring, reporting, advocacy, capacity building, and partnership.
In addition to questions about the role and functions of an HRFO, the 2004 survey also included several questions addressing the required skills and competencies to fulfil these functions. What could be described as ‘applied knowledge of international human rights standards’ was ranked as by far the most important technical skill required to fulfil this role, followed by local knowledge and knowledge of the local language. Also seen as essential were communication/diplomacy/advocacy skills, practical skills, drafting skills, monitoring/research skills, and analytical skills. Other skills mentioned include teaching/training skills, knowledge of local law, reporting skills, capacity-building skills, technical assistance skills, and project management skills.
In terms of personal competencies, cultural/political/gender sensitivity and teamwork were described as the most essential attributes. The respondents also mentioned quite often creativity/initiative, commitment/compassion, and leadership. The 2008 survey confirms this list and adds various other intangible yet essential traits such as persistence, cheerfulness, and a ‘solid stomach’.
The identification of the principal functions and tools requires, furthermore, to be accompanied by a standardized methodology for their application in diverse circumstances. This, too, forms part of the professionalization of a given work area. Manuals, standard operating procedures (SOPs), and other methodological guidance and rule books may serve the function of reinforcing and consolidating professional systems and will usually be disseminated by the deploying organizations or by such external sources as research institutions and professional bodies. To ensure the delivery of professional-level services by human rights field officers, the deploying organizations must also have in place arrangements for recruitment that are based on the skills and competencies of candidates, as well as for career development.
A final crucial element of professional systems concerns education and training. These are essential to professional identity since they address the transfer of the formal bodies of knowledge defining the discipline as well as the relevant practical skills, tools and methodologies. There are some elements to education that are common to, and shared among, all those who engage in human rights work, such as general human rights courses taught at schools and universities. This already marks an important step towards the professionalization of the discipline. Our primary interest at present is, however, in programmes targeted directly at human rights field workers. In consultations about how to design training for this target group, De Guttry has suggested a typology comprising both programmes that may be delivered within organizations and courses offered by external educational establishments.39 He argues for the need for and the very distinct roles of education/training in three professional moments: pre-recruitment, pre-deployment, and in-service.40 All education/training must be calibrated to specializations and levels of seniority. The present authors, based on their research within the Consolidating the Profession project, are of the view that there are also important differences between the forms of education/training required for human rights personnel recruited internationally and locally within the work location.41 Another aspect of education is that whereby the organization learns from the experience of the field worker. It may be undertaken through such mechanisms as an ongoing review of practice and the de-briefing of staff at the end of their assignments. The following section will consider the extent to which these levels of system are actually in place for human rights field work.
Taking Stock of the Present Situation: How Far Has Professionalization Come?
Having attained a reasonably detailed description of what it means to be a human rights professional – in part based on the self-identification of human rights officers working in the field – and having charted the necessary values, knowledge, and implementation structures required to sustain a culture of professionalism, it remains to be ascertained whether the required guidance and support structures are actually in place. This involves taking stock of what has so far been accomplished and where improvements can be made. The two questionnaire surveys undertaken in conjunction with the project Consolidating the Profession have been tailored to address this issue.
In general terms, and as we saw earlier, it can be noted that efforts have been made on a continuous basis by the international organizations employing human rights field personnel. However, it is only in the new millennium that one can detect significant advances. The first of these was the publication by OHCHR, in 2001, of a manual for human rights field workers. This substantial tome addresses the various work areas that field operations had tended to include, and provides theoretical support and rather loosely structured practical guidance. The manual also contains a code of conduct that addresses issues of institutional discipline and of personal ethics. The Aspen Institute continued its contribution, with a considered reflection on the role of the human rights officer in UN transitional missions (Henkin, 2003). Former human rights officers published papers that reflected on their experiences and proposed good practices and methodological innovations (Martin, 1998; Betts et al., 2001; O'Flaherty, 2006). The number of vehicles for the transmission of good practice and other doctrine increased substantially with the convening of annual meetings of the heads of UN human rights field operations and the more regular organization of in-service training.
The state of play as of 2004 was captured in the Consolidating the Profession project survey of that year. Respondents were asked to indicate three challenges encountered in the field for which they felt they were not appropriately prepared in terms of methodological guidance, skills, competencies, or resources. A number of categories of challenges encountered emerge as especially critical from most of the answers and seem to represent recurring themes. First, many respondents described extreme situations, such as the investigation of mass graves or receiving death threats, for which they did not feel appropriately prepared in terms of expertise (e.g., lack of forensic expertise) as well as of coping with the resulting stress. Second, in a more general sense, several respondents felt that they should have received more training preparing them for the mission and complained about the lack of appropriate training materials. Third, a number of respondents stated that they experienced the lack of appropriate human, material, and financial resources as a major hindrance to their work. Finally, some respondents indicated that they were not given adequate guidance from headquarters on how to translate certain policies into practice.
The respondents were also asked to indicate in which of the areas they had ordered according to importance they felt that HRFOs are most supported by methodological guidance provided by their organizations. The function which had received the highest rating in terms of importance, monitoring, was seen as the one in which field officers are best supported. Another function generally seen as important, reporting, was equally described as well supported. Advocacy and intervention, in contrast, only received five mentions as being well supported. Similarly, analysis/research, which ranked mid-table in terms of importance, received only two mentions as being a well-supported function.
The findings of the 2004 survey were discussed at an expert meeting convened at the OHCHR headquarters in November of that year. This formed the basis for a set of recommendations on how the role of the HRFO could be strengthened and better supported. The recommendations included specific proposals regarding systems of recruitment, clarification of sets of core skills, competencies and standards, elaboration of personal and institutional accountability frameworks and training. They persistently linked the implementation of such proposals with the pursuit of professional identity and integrity. They did not, however, include a proposal for the development of a professional organization or any form of formal accreditation for HRFOs – the predominant view being that the sector was too new and that the erection of barriers to entry would be unhelpful, contentious, and difficult to implement for some time to come.42 A key factor behind this sentiment was precisely the concern to avoid the negative effects of professionalization of the types described earlier in this article.
Since 2004, the OHCHR has taken a number of initiatives to enhance the capacities of field officers and to provide them with appropriate support. It has considerably augmented the levels of headquarters support to field operations, including that for access to funds to enable the field officers to undertake capacity-building activities. Recruitment procedures have been streamlined and a greater focus is being placed on in-service training. As we have seen, an increasing number of human rights officers are recruited locally. Work has commenced on the development of a new edition of the field manual. OHCHR has also adopted a number of SOPs. The SOPs, however, predominantly address issues of organizational efficiency and discipline: internal and external reporting, processing of grants, development of work plans, and so forth, rather than matters of core professional function. These latter aspects are instead being addressed primarily by a number of academic institutions that are now teaching courses on human rights field skills and on the discrete issue of human rights field operations. One of the present authors (M.O'F.) produced an edited volume on the latter topic in 2007.
For all of the advances, though, there are indications that the sector remains inadequately served in terms of operating doctrine and methods – or at least that field personnel are unaware of significant improvements. In the 2008 follow-up survey, the majority of respondents, having identified advocacy as the principal activity of the field officer, indicated that this is the function in which they receive the least amount of support. Capacity building, analysis, and research are the other primary functions which were seen to be in need of stronger guidance. As in 2004, monitoring and reporting were identified as the functions in which methodological guidance is best developed and established.
The respondents were asked in an open question to identify what type of support could improve the deficiencies mentioned in their answers. Out of 44 respondents, 16 identified a need for more institutional guidance, information sharing, and the development of structures and procedures by which to retain and transmit ‘lessons learned’. Most respondents stressed the importance of guidelines and information specifically relevant to the country in which they are working, rather than a generalized methodological approach which might not prove adequate to the cultural and political context. Thirteen respondents indicated a need for further training, both technical and non-technical, again related to the specific context of their operation. Political willingness and better in-mission coordination were both identified as important success parameters which in many cases allow scope for improvement. According to the respondents, partnerships with national human rights institutions, national government and national civil society are better supported by the employing organizations than partnerships with the private sector, non-state actors, and the media. A few respondents took the strong position that they were not aware of any type of support in strengthening professional partnerships, and therefore considered them to be all equally ‘not supported’.
Specifically with regard to training needs, a majority of respondents felt that their education and experience were adequate to the requirements that they faced in their work. Interestingly, more than half of the respondents had obtained a master's degree in human rights or an equivalent post-graduate qualification. While this may not be fully representative of human rights field workers in general, it clearly indicates an emerging trend in the direction of more standardized professional education as qualification for human rights field work. When asked in an open question to identify the training gaps that they had experienced in their professional career, a significant number of respondents expressed a need for further human rights training of a distinctly practical nature (they defined this as ‘contextualized’, ‘advanced’, ‘pragmatic’ and ‘practical’). About 60% of the respondents had occasionally undertaken professional training in the course of their career, mainly in the form of in-mission (40%) or pre-deployment (22%) training. Although the majority found such training to have been beneficial, there still seems to be scope for improving the content so that they can foster and enhance the relevant professional competencies, as outlined above. Respondents who had not received substantive professional training in their current or past employment situations in several cases indicated that this would have been beneficial. Very general induction training at the beginning of an employment situation was flagged by several respondents as not having been particularly useful. Respondents repeatedly emphasized that specialized training for HRFOs should, as far as possible, be developed and delivered by professionals with extensive field experience. In the case of in-mission training, priority should, moreover, be given to ensuring that the relevant skills and knowledge are effectively passed on and remain in the country of operation when the human rights professional departs. Such training should, in other words, be seen as part of a wider capacity-building exercise and should be designed to empower and strengthen national officers.
A new focus area of the 2008 questionnaire survey, finally, concerns perceived career opportunities. More than half of the respondents felt, in this regard, that there are somewhat adequate or generally adequate opportunities for advancement in the organizations for which they have worked. Yet, more than a quarter of the respondents found that the opportunities for advancement within their organization are largely inadequate or even totally inadequate. Similarly, the majority of respondents considered the opportunities for career development offered by the profession as a whole to be somewhat adequate or generally adequate, whereas some found them largely or totally inadequate. Long working hours and difficulties in striking the right family/work balance were identified among the primary difficulties encountered in the respondents' career development. Difficulties in moving from field offices to headquarters were similarly seen to present a significant professional obstacle.
Future Directions for the Professionalization Process
Our research, including the results of the surveys, demonstrates that considerable progress has been made along the path of professionalization for the human rights field officers of intergovernmental organizations. Fundamental elements of the three professional pillars of values, knowledge, and systems can be said to be in place. It is no less evident that the process is far from complete and it is premature to refer to a well-defined profession or a clearly articulated professional identity.
Several reasons can be suggested for this. The most likely reason why a distinct professional identity has only partially emerged, at best, is a purely chronological one. Not enough time may have elapsed for a clear set of common elements to materialize and take root. The first intergovernmental field operation was deployed only in 1991, just 18 years before this paper was written. One may observe, by comparison, that such professions as law, medicine, and diplomacy emerged over centuries. It may also be suggested that the alternative professional identities of HRFOs, including many of those ancient ones, may continue for now to dominate. Thus, the lawyer HRFO will continue to identify with the legal profession, the diplomat-HRFO with diplomacy, and so forth. This is likely to persist in the absence of a substantial set of autonomous professional markers for the HRFO.
The development of further markers will require a process of sustained reflection and the proposal of professional models that address each of the pillars of values, knowledge, and systems. It was as a contribution to this process that the Consolidating the Profession project proposed the Guiding Principles and the associated Statement of Ethical Commitments. As has been observed earlier, they were developed in a highly consultative process that took account of the views of a wide range of current and former human rights field workers, as well as other experts, and reflected the proceedings at expert consultations convened by the project during 2004–2008 in Asia, Africa, and Europe. They also took account of the SOPs, codes of conduct, and other relevant materials of intergovernmental organizations. While the Guiding Principles were directed at all human rights officers deployed by intergovernmental organizations to conflict and post-conflict environments, they are expressed in a manner whereby they are relevant to the work of the human rights officer regardless of the specific mandate of the deploying organization. It was also identified that elements of the Guiding Principles would have relevance for the work of other types of human rights field workers, such as those working for non-governmental organizations and those who work in non-armed conflict-related environments. The Statement of Ethical Commitments is an integral part of the Guiding Principles. It is also an autonomous document that has relevance for all human rights practitioners.43
The Guiding Principles and the Statement of Ethical Commitments, as far as the authors are aware, are the first attempts to articulate a comprehensive framework for the HRFO profession. It is envisaged that they may provoke debate and reflection and facilitate the emergence of essential points of agreement regarding professional identity. They are by no means intended as the last word. Rather, as with humanitarianism and its multiple efforts to articulate the professional identity, it is hoped that they will serve both as useful tools themselves and be accompanied by other complementary efforts. It is out of the totality of such efforts that a set of commonly accepted defining features is likely to emerge over time.
Side-by-side with the ongoing professionalization process, our findings demonstrate the urgent need to augment the delivery to future and current HRFOs of applied education and training. As has been demonstrated, the significant levels of agreed doctrine and method are far from matched by pedagogical efforts. The various deploying organizations and educational institutions need to address this gap as a matter of urgency in order not only to further the professionalization process but also to avoid an unnecessary deficiency in the quality of service delivery by HRFOs. One could, in this connection, envision the forging of much more elaborate partnerships between academic institutions involved in human rights education and international organizations deploying HRFOs.
One may also ask whether the moment has come to initiate a form of accreditation system for HRFOs. It will be recalled that this proposal was decisively rejected by participants at the project's 2004 Geneva consultation meeting.44 The present authors believe that there has been inadequate progress since then to justify any change in this viewpoint. A fair and efficient form of obligatory accreditation would need to be based on a much wider degree of shared professional understanding than is currently in place. More appropriate to the current state of the sector would be forms of voluntary certification for those who have undergone tailored training programmes or who have accumulated specific forms of experience. Such certification systems would not operate as formal ‘gate-keepers’ for entry to or advancement within the sector but would instead serve to promote excellence among HRFOs. They could be used by employer organizations as quality indicators to assist in the assessment of competencies and skills and for the professional development of the individual HRFO. In this regard, it will be of some utility to assess the impact of a recent initiative to establish a voluntary certification system for civilian peacekeeping personnel.45
It is through the interplay of such efforts that the HRFO professional identity will consolidate over time. As this happens, HRFOs will be better positioned to serve their vocational duty for the promotion and protection of the human rights of the most vulnerable. It is thus that the anecdotal experience recounted at the outset of this article will one day come to be seen as an eccentric curiosity of history rather than an all too familiar recounting of common recent experience.
The authors express appreciation for the research assistance provided by Daria Davitti.