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Ironing Out the Kinks in the UN’s New Human-Rights Initiative


José María Aranaz, a human-rights specialist for the UN, with peacekeepers discussing a Burundian refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. ABEL KAVANAUGH/MONUSCO
José María Aranaz, center, a human-rights specialist for the UN, with UN peacekeepers discussing a Burundian refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. ABEL KAVANAUGH/MONUSCO

BERLIN — In December 2013, Jan Eliasson, the United Nations deputy secretary-general, went on a selling spree. In a series of briefings, he presented a new initiative to UN member states and to the rest of the world.

In his address to the General Assembly, Eliasson said, not mincing words: “In improving the way we deal with potential crises we hope to respond more effectively when there is a risk that serious violations of international human rights or of humanitarian law could turn into mass atrocities.”

This statement was the essence of the UN’s Human Rights Up Front initiative, an action plan to improve the organization’s coordination and early warning and early response systems to serious abuses of human rights.

While the initiative was widely hailed by UN member states and civil society, its details and implications were left vague. Eliasson spoke only in general terms about the plan, and the UN has published only a six-point summary of the initiative, whose internal version includes more than 60 action points.

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The value of human rights is not new to the UN system, of course, but it had not been integrated into work plans, job descriptions and other bureaucratic requirements until recently. This is changing, notably for resident coordinators operating in the field, who are now explicitly tasked with developing a strategy on how to deal with serious human-rights abuses in their country team’s work. In addition, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Department of Political Affairs are now involved in the performance appraisal of resident coordinators, so scrutiny is closer.

Now, in new research I have done, based on numerous interviews with many of the UN officials involved in the initiative’s design and implementation, a more detailed picture emerges of the plan and its progress so far.

Human Rights Up Front has three interlocking goals: to transform the UN’s organizational culture, to entrench human rights as a priority throughout the UN system and to enable UN officials working with member states to achieve these goals.

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To start, a new, streamlined early warning and crisis management system has been introduced; as part of this system, regional directors from the Department of Political Affairs and the UN Development Group lead regional quarterly reviews that include all relevant UN agencies and contributions from the field.

Gerrit Kurtz, the author.
Gerrit Kurtz, the author.

Staff members of UN agencies participating in the reviews discuss all the countries in a particular region, the potential and acute crises and the adequacy of the UN’s response to such situations — whether the UN is present in the country or not. In doing so, the reviews encourage exchanges among humanitarian, development, human-rights and political agencies of the UN, creating “a real value added” aspect, one participant said.

Senior UN officials can then make decisions regarding the UN’s response to a crisis that would have in the past been pushed up to the level of the agency head. If the participants think that the situation requires the most senior-level attention and authority, a senior action group can be convened, chaired by Eliasson.

This review process has enhanced working relations among the entities involved, notably between the UN Development Program and the Department of Political Affairs. Despite criticism that might arise from member states whose country is discussed in a review meeting, the UN has maintained the broad focus of the exercise, studying every country in a region.

Other operational changes of the initiative have encountered major difficulties. A common information management system that would bring together all particulars that different UN agencies collect on protected groups such as women, children, journalists or other civilians is one example of the bureaucratic hurdles of generating coherence among UN agencies.

The working group set up to develop that system quickly recognized that it would be too cumbersome to establish a single database with individual cases from all relevant UN entities. Rather, the group considered other ways to improve information-sharing, but because of wide differences in the UN system as to what activities can be called “protection,” as well as varying standards for verification, a systemwide agreement has remained elusive.

More crucially, engaging with governments on human-rights abuses and threats to civilians requires a certain kind of leadership, starting with examples set by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, and agency heads. Whenever a UN official in the field is criticized or even expelled by a country simply for complying with his or her obligations regarding human-rights protection, lack of support from top UN officials for the person’s courageous work signals to other staff members that acquiescence with violations may be preferable in some situations.

It was encouraging, for example, when Ban and member states strongly endorsed Scott Campbell, head of the human-rights section of the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Monusco) after the Congolese government expelled him because of an unfavorable report written by his office on summary executions by the Congolese police.

To succeed in fostering an activist culture promoting human rights across the UN system, the initiative requires sustained backing beyond the term of the current secretary-general. Member states must be supportive, too, by making earmarked voluntary contributions to the human-rights work of UN development agencies, encouraging senior officials in donor consultations with UN agencies to take human-rights issues seriously and closely coordinating with UN human-rights offices in the field.

Ban Ki-moon recently described Human Rights Up Front as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to help assure that the UN meets the aspirations of the Charter.”

It should not be missed.


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Gerrit Kurtz is a research associate with the Global Public Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization in Berlin. Kurtz works on such areas as global security governance, including peacekeeping, sanctions and protection of at-risk populations, as well as international norms, Indian foreign policy and the conflict in Sri Lanka.

He is a co-author of “Protection and Responsibility: An Analysis of US Foreign Policy to Prevent Mass Atrocities,” a study commissioned by the Heinrich Boll Foundation.

Previously, Kurtz was a research fellow for the chair of international organizations and public policy at the University of Potsdam; before that he was a fellow with the Carlo Schmid Program in the United Nations Department of Political Affairs.

Kurtz has a master’s degree in international relations through a joint program with the Free University in Berlin, the Humboldt University of Berlin and the University of Potsdam. He holds a bachelor’s degree in governance and public policy from the University of Passau. He speaks
English, French and German.

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Ironing Out the Kinks in the UN’s New Human-Rights Initiative
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