In Hindsight: The Security Council’s Interaction with the High Commissioner for Human Rights
In March, an event took place that has raised a number of questions about the relationship of the Security Council with the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Seven Security Council members requested a briefing by the High Commissioner on the human rights situation in Syria in what would have been only the second public briefing focused specifically on the human rights situation in Syria since the beginning of the country’s civil war in March 2011. Members gathered in the chamber on the afternoon of 19 March to receive the briefing, but Russia objected to holding the meeting and asked for a procedural vote on the adoption of the agenda (each formal Council meeting starts with the adoption of its agenda, but this is done by acclamation and unanticipated calls for a vote are extremely rare). The agenda failed to receive the nine positive votes needed for a procedural decision to be adopted (Bolivia, China, Kazakhstan and Russia voted against and Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea and Ethiopia abstained). As a result, the formal meeting was called off and High Commissioner Zeid bin Ra’ad al-Hussein briefed later that afternoon under the informal Arria format.
This was a surprising outcome because ever since the then-High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson addressed the Security Council on 16 September 1999, the Council has sought the High Commissioner’s advice on multiple occasions. Robinson spoke during an open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict and covered human rights violations related to several situations on the Council’s agenda at the time, including Angola, East Timor and Sierra Leone.
That first meeting would not have happened without the advocacy of various actors, including several members of the Council, human rights organisations, and, most of all, Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Over the next several years, 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 on several occasions. In 2001, the UK organised an out-of-town retreat focused on the Security Council and human rights with the participation of the High Commissioner.
While a regular feature since 1999, the practice of interacting with the top human rights official has experienced ups and downs in terms of frequency and the ease with which different meetings have been arranged. From 2006 through 2008, there was only one meeting. During that period, different Council members suggested hearing from the High Commissioner on various occasions, but they encountered considerable resistance from their counterparts and did not push the matter further. Starting in 2009, the trend changed, and invitations to the High Commissioner began to be issued several times each year, with the most to date being 17 in 2015. Most members, including those who had been quite reluctant initially, appreciated the usefulness of receiving information and analysis from the High Commissioner, and had come to accept that an understanding of the human rights situation was relevant to reaching political settlements of the various conflicts on the Council’s agenda. Each of the permanent members sought a High Commissioner’s briefing at some point during this period.
In addition to the practice of regularly interacting with the High Commissioner and his or her top advisors that has been established for nearly 20 years, the Security Council highlighted the value of such briefings in the unanimously adopted resolution 2171 of 21 August 2014. In an operative paragraph, the resolution states that the Council “[r]ecognizes the important role the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights…can play in conflict prevention”, adding that briefings on human rights violations play a role in contributing to early awareness of potential conflict.
Although the Council has formally recognised the usefulness of having input from and dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, accepting the value of human rights input and of interaction with the top UN human rights officials has not always been universal and occasionally needed some concerted diplomatic work. As the Council found earlier this year, the willingness to hear out this actor is not something that can be taken for granted. The history of this relationship perhaps offers some lessons learnt.
The Council as a whole took more than five years to accept the usefulness of hearing a briefing from the High Commissioner in one of its open debates. From April 1994 when the first High Commissioner, José Ayala Lasso, took office until the first briefing in September 1999, several Council members as well as UN Secretariat officials and NGOs worked to convince the reluctant Council members that this interaction would be useful to the Council in its efforts to be more effective in maintaining international peace and security.
In this context, of particular interest may be how an elected member overcame some members’ reluctance to involve the High Commissioner in Council discussions at the end of the previous decade. Austria was to hold the presidency of the Council in November 2009 when a regular debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict was scheduled. Although at that point, the practice of inviting the High Commissioner as one of the briefers in these debates had been dropped, the Austrian Permanent Representative decided to extend an invitation to then-High Commissioner Navi Pillay to brief. Through extensive prior consultations with other members of the Council, he secured their consent. When the next regular debate on the protection of civilians was to be held in July 2010, Austria conducted informal consultations with other members of the Council and again obtained their agreement. Agreeing to invite the High Commissioner to the November 2010 debate proved much easier, with Austria again acting as the lead advocate and securing consent. From that point on, inviting the High Commissioner became a regular practice, and for the next several years, the High Commissioner was always among the briefers during these debates. The open debate on the protection of civilians became a platform for the High Commissioner to brief on a number of issues considered by his or her office as most urgent in the context of international peace and security. More recently, however, the different presidencies holding this thematic open debate have chosen to focus the debates on aspects of protection other than human rights, and the High Commissioner has not been among the invited briefers.
Whether as part of an open debate or as a briefing on a single topic, there are likely to be some members of the Council who will continue to see the usefulness in receiving human rights information and engaging in a human rights discussion when seeking to mitigate or end conflict. As history has shown it will be up to these members to ensure that the long-established practice of receiving briefings from the High Commissioner continues to be an integral part of the work of the Council.