Professor Balakrishnan Rajagopal, in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning assumed the role of special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing — through an appointment by the United Nations Human Rights Council. He recently spoke on human rights in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic and how he plans to address other challenges in his new appointment.

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Photo credit: M.Iacobo

Q: What is the role of the UN special rapporteur? How does the UN address human rights challenges through mechanisms such as these?

A: Special rapporteurs are independent experts who are voted in to lead work in specific thematic areas — such as housing, food, freedom of expression, and minority rights — by states at the UN Human Rights Council. Rapporteurs are a kind of global watchdog attempting to hold states and other entities to account when they violate human rights. They also promote respect for international law and help develop the law further through their leadership. Rapporteurs have a public role in monitoring and holding to account states or other entities when violations of rights occur; they provide intellectual leadership for their thematic areas by reporting to the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council; and they conduct visits to specific countries to assess their record of compliance with human rights relevant to their mandate. The multiple roles played by rapporteurs have generated new policies and laws, stopped ongoing human rights abuses, and provided important political and moral support for victims and organizations that work to protect human rights. States have come to rely on special rapporteurs quite a lot over the years. Their role is perceived as a “crown jewel” of the UN human rights system, in the words of the UN high commissioner for human rights. The information, analysis, and leadership provided by the rapporteurs is an important part of how states and civil society organizations have come to promote respect for human rights. The work done by the rapporteurs can be best seen as a form of public service at the global level. …

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