December 2016 Monthly Forecast


In Hindsight: The Security Council’s Ever Evolving Relationship with Human Rights

Most conflicts on today’s Council agenda are accompanied by severe human rights violations perpetrated on civilian populations by insurgents and in many cases, also by governments or those linked to them. A surge in human rights violations has often been a sign of potential outbreak of a conflict, or a predictor of increased instability and conflict escalation. The need for human rights information and analysis has come to be generally accepted as an aspect of the reality the Security Council needs to consider in order to be effective in fulfilling its main objective, the maintenance of international peace and security. But this acceptance came only relatively recently, after decades of questioning the appropriateness of Council’s concern with human rights, and the level of Council’s interest has fluctuated from year to year. 

Human rights have never been entirely absent from the Security Council’s outlook. Even during the Cold War decades, when the topic was seen as particularly sensitive, the Council adopted several resolutions with human rights references, including those on the situation in Hungary in 1956, in the Congo in 1961 and in the Dominican Republic in 1965. Starting in the early 1960s, several Council resolutions that were adopted in the context of decolonisation had strong human rights language, and some invoked the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The strongest human rights language in Council resolutions of the Cold War era concerned South Africa. Between 1963 and the late 1980s, the Council passed numerous resolutions that called on the government to take specific measures dealing strictly with the protection of human rights, such as releasing political prisoners; stopping executions and granting amnesties for political prisoners; abolishing detention without charge, without access to counsel and without the right to a prompt trial; and commuting death sentences or granting stays of execution concerning specific prisoners.

But during most of the first four-and-a-half decades of the Organisation, it was generally rare and sometimes quite controversial to involve human rights in the spectrum of issues considered by the Council when addressing threats to international peace and security or conflicts already underway.

Since the early 1990s, however, as the nature of conflicts on the Council’s agenda has changed from those between states to almost exclusively internal ones, human rights have gradually become accepted as indispensable to the Council’s thinking and action in its efforts to safeguard international peace and security. At the Security Council’s first summit-level meeting in January 1992—on the responsibility of the Security Council in the maintenance of international peace and security—every head of state or government participating in the debate raised the issue of the appropriateness of the Council’s addressing human rights. Most were in full support. President Boris Yeltsin of Russia said that the “Security Council is called upon to underscore the civilized world’s collective responsibility for the protection of human rights and freedoms”, while President George H. W. Bush of the US listed human rights among “the building blocks of peace and freedom”. Most members and the Secretary-General were strongly supportive of the Council’s concern with human rights. A few, however, displayed reluctance, expressing concerns about interference in the internal affairs of other countries. A presidential statement adopted at the meeting acknowledged that human rights verification had become one of the “integral parts of the Security Council’s effort to maintain international peace and security” and welcomed this development.

Later that year the Council sought information and analysis for the first time from investigators appointed by the top human rights body, the Commission on Human Rights (succeeded in 2006 by the Human Rights Council, or HRC). These investigators, collectively referred to as special procedures, are independent experts and have editorial control over their reporting and statements. This has resulted on numerous occasions in frank and hard-hitting reporting, otherwise difficult to achieve in UN documents. Furthermore, special procedures can act with considerable speed. Over the years, the Council has received briefings from the special procedures on a few dozen occasions, though only four times—three in 1992 and one in 2014—in formal sessions.

Following the establishment of the post in 1993, the top human rights official, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, has become an important interlocutor for the Council. But issuing the first invitation for the High Commissioner to brief was controversial, and the frequency of interactions has varied considerably, occasionally fading completely. Following the first briefing in 1999, the High Commissioner (or the Deputy or Acting High Commissioner) was invited to meet with the Council either in a formal meeting or in consultations a total of 11 times through 2005. No meetings occurred in 2006 and 2008, and there was one in 2007. At various points, different Council members suggested hearing from the High Commissioner but encountered considerable resistance from their counterparts. This seems to have changed starting in 2009, with formal invitations issued several times each year, ranging from five in 2012 to 17 in 2015 (with six so far in 2016). Most members, including those who were initially quite reluctant, have appreciated the usefulness of receiving information and analysis from the High Commissioner, and each of the permanent members has sought a High Commissioner’s briefing at some point during this period.

Furthermore, in the last few years, the High Commissioner’s New York office has offered to Council members informal, expert-level briefings on crisis situations (for example, four this year on Burundi) and has held informal introductory meetings with new or incoming Council members.

Overall, there have been numerous interactions between Council members and the different UN human rights actors. But over the years, their frequency and formats have fluctuated and some that had seemed to have become a firmly established practice have faded. For example, so far in 2016 there has been no Arria-formula meeting with the HRC Commission of Inquiry on Syria, a departure from the practice of having one or two such meetings each year since 2012. Similarly, the High Commissioner for Human Rights—who, since 2009, has briefed the Council at least once a year during the periodic open debates on the protection of civilians in armed conflict—has not been invited to provide a briefing on this topic in 2016.

The recent decrease in the number of formal interactions (in public and closed meetings) between the Security Council and the UN human rights machinery may perhaps be expected to change again. Marking the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the HRC earlier this year, 69 member states from all regional groups joined Switzerland in an appeal for a more effective interaction between the HRC and other UN bodies, in particular the Security Council, in the context of conflict prevention. The appeal invited “members of the Security Council to request regular briefings by the High Commissioner for Human Rights; to supplement its information base for informed decisions with reports of the HRC and its mechanisms … in order to enhance its action in conflict prevention”. States joining the appeal—which included permanent members France, the UK and the US and elected and incoming Council members Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine and Uruguay—committed themselves “to use actively our membership in all relevant bodies of the United Nations to put human rights at the heart of conflict prevention and make conflict prevention a reality”.