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The Security Council is the most authoritative organ of the United Nations, and supporters of the Council naturally expect it to exercise that authority when gross violations of human rights shock the conscience of humanity. During the Cold War, such actions were rarely done, except partly in relation to situations in southern Africa.
Since the end of the Cold War, the Council has stepped forward more to deal with thematic issues as well as conflict-related situations. The Council also took strong initiatives toward international justice on wars and other crises in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Darfur.
Thematically, the Council has addressed environmental threats, HIV/AIDS, famine, children and armed conflict, women and armed conflict, the rule of law and the role of human rights in conflict prevention, peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace-building.
The reputation of the UN suffers, however, when the Council fails to be responsible in situations of shocking violations of human rights. The Council needs to develop a wise, balanced policy for dealing with human rights. A thematic approach could be the way ahead.
In the past, the Council did experiment, even if unsuccessfully, with UN protected areas in the former Yugoslavia. But it has struggled to manage other major problems of international concern, such as those in North Korea, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and, most recently, in Venezuela. Political interests intrude. Politics trump principle.
There is also a point of view, held by many Council members, that the competent organs set up to do so, such as the Human Rights Council, should handle human-rights issues and that the Security Council should not intrude into their domain. It is also sometimes contended that human-rights issues do not fall within the mandate of the Security Council. This is quite wrong.
The remit of the Council is to deal with threats to, or breaches of, international peace and security. Nowhere in the Charter, nor in the discussions leading to its adoption, was the term “international security” limited. Highly qualified commentators on the provisions of the Charter recognize that “international security” is broad and that it is for the Security Council to decide when it is applicable to a situation or to an issue.
On April 18, 2017, the Security Council, under the rotating presidency of the United States, held what the country called the Council’s first general discussion on human rights. It appears, however, that not enough confidence-building efforts were made to promote the initiative and that a fair amount of suspicion was detected about the discussion from several members of the Council.
From the start, it was unclear what results were being sought by the discussion, which is why confidence-building by the US was needed.
The experienced and wise Sir Brian Urquhart, a legendary UN figure who is now 98, used to advise us in the UN Secretariat that “one should never dive into an empty pool.” The statements of several members of the Security Council during the US human-rights discussion, led by the ambassador, Nikki Haley, suggested that they considered the pool empty.
So the discussion took place, but there was no single summing-up statement.
Nevertheless, it was important that discussions on human rights took place, and the content of the deliberations offer clues for modernizing the human-rights role of the Security Council. The discussions brought forth, for example, that:
- The Council regularly holds thematic discussions on the item of children and armed conflict and the item on women, peace and security — or women and armed conflict.
- The secretary-general provides a foundation for the Council’s deliberations on these items by submitting reports. Senior UN officials also take part in the open debates.
- The Council has established human-rights components in several UN peace operations and special political missions and discusses their functioning periodically. The Council has paid particular attention to rule-of-law strategies.
- The Council has also paid attention to the role of human-rights considerations in preventive strategies, peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace-building.
- The Council has, on occasion, acted on international justice dimensions of a few situations.
This work by the Council indicates that it can modernize its role in human rights. Building on a thematic approach would help generate seriousness around the theme and contribute to a positive, incremental strategy within the Security Council.
As it does for the items on children and armed conflict and on women, peace and security, the Council could organize an annual thematic briefing by the UN secretary-general on the topic of “human rights and international peace and security.” China and Russia would probably be persuaded to accept this premise if it was argued that the Council would be replicating what it does on children and women.
The purpose would be to draw lessons on how human-rights issues are being tackled in UN peace operations and political missions. The Council could invite experts, such as the under secretaries-general for political, peace-building and peacekeeping as well as the UN high commissioner for human rights and the president of the Security Council to speak at the debate.
This approach would have many benefits. First, it would communicate to the world that the Council is attentive to the practical dimensions of the interrelatedness of peace, development and human rights. This would be a much-needed public-relations gain.
Second, it would give the Council an opportunity to assess its own approaches and strategies when dealing with human-rights dimensions of UN peace operations and political missions.
Third, it would help sharpen the insights of the Council into the human-rights dimensions of preventive strategies, peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace-building.
Fourth, it would help the Council to better assess continuing ways to handling matters of rule of law and justice.
Lastly, it might help the Council clarify how best to approach situations of gross violations of human rights that are shocking the conscience of humanity. This would be an incremental approach that would foster more credence among UN member countries that the Council is acting in a considered and a measured manner. In particular, through these steps the Council could feel its way toward a more fruitful relationship with the Human Rights Council.
These approaches would help the Security Council move forward positively and avoid diving into an empty pool again.