Interview with John Pace on his new book: The United Nations Commission on Human Rights: ‘A Very Great Enterprise’


You have extensive experience working with the UN in positions such as Secretary of the Commission on Human Rights and Coordinator of the World Conference on Human Rights. Can you tell us how you came to work for the UN?
As a student, I was very interested in student politics and international relations so during my study I travelled a fair bit attending conferences and bilateral exchanges. In 1965, I applied and was given an internship in the UN legal office. I then spent 1-2 years working on a study on the Administration of justice under John Humphrey. In 1967, the South African mandate against Apartheid and the 6-day war in Palestine led to the establishment of the ‘Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council’. I became responsible for Special Procedures in the first ten years of their existence. My original intention of spending a few years at the UN turned into 33 years of service. I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.
You’ve recently released a new book titled ‘The United Nations Commission on Human Rights: ‘A Very Great Enterprise’. Can you tell us what this book is about?
The words ‘very great enterprise’ were the first words uttered in 1946 as the UN was being formed and as they announced the establishment of a Commission on Human Rights. The book traces how this Great Enterprise evolved, what it produced and when, and how it sometimes got buffeted around or misquoted. The book covers every single report of the Commission on Human Rights and the Human Rights Council from 1947 to 2019. The epilogue talks about the Great Enterprise in the future, because its role continues to evolve.

at inspired you to write this history of human rights in the UN System?
I was teaching during a 2014 DTP program in Kathmandu and I realised how necessary it was to give students the possibility of accessing comprehensive knowledge of human rights at the UN in a user-friendly manner. The purpose was to provide a tool for students and for others who want, for example, to draft policies. There is so much written about the Commission, but a lot of it is personal evaluation. I tried to let the Commission speak for itself and let the reader decide how they felt about it.

DTP does a lot of work with civil society organisations. 
How important is civil society participation to the effectiveness of the UN’s human rights machinery
Civil Society participation is not just important, it is essential. It was only because of pressure from civil society that the original UN members decided to insert the Human Rights provisions into the UN Charter. Civil society played a major role in the drafting of what became International Human Rights Law.


Today, the Human Rights Council’s biggest problem is that they have alienated civil society from their work. They call civil society ‘other stakeholders’ and they do not take part in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), except when they are contributing a written submission which is significantly summarised before being presented to the Council. When the Council decides to review its own structures, it will need seriously to reintegrate civil society in its work. That is why DTP plays such a vital role in preparing Civil Society to take part constructively in the International work.

And finally, l
to the future – how do you think the UN’s human rights system needs to change going forward?
Many countries, especially in the West, consider human rights as simply civil and political rights. Economic, social and cultural rights are just as vital. The focus on rights and, in particular, the role of business in human rights needs to be better defined. My hope is that the Human Rights Council and the High Commissioner will be able to encourage this rethinking, to ensure people are aware of their rights and of their responsibilities towards each other and the State. The Human Rights Council has definitely done some good work but there is much more to be done.
Interview conducted by DTP volunteers Lauren Merritt and Aayam Shrestha, May 2020.