Research Report

Human Rights and the Security Council – An Evolving Role

This is Security Council Report’s first research report on human rights. To view the full report, please download the PDF

Human rights feature prominently in the Charter of the United Nations. Its preamble says that the “Peoples of the United Nations” are determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war and reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights. Promoting the respect for human rights is included among the purposes and principles of the organisation. Article 55 sees “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights” as integral to the “creation of conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations”.

For decades, however, human rights were seen as being largely outside the scope of the Security Council and were seldom mentioned within its confines. Governments felt ambivalent about including a set of issues widely perceived as a matter of state sovereignty in their deliberations about international peace and security. But, after several decades when most items on the Council agenda had been conflicts between states, the nature of the situations the Council needed to address changed towards the end of the 1980s increasingly to internal conflicts. In these situations, human rights violations are often among the first warning signs of a looming conflict; they may be part of a conflict’s root causes; and they are almost invariably a feature of the conflict as such. A failure to accept human rights as an aspect of the reality which the Council needed to deal with would, for purely pragmatic reasons, considerably hamper the Council’s effectiveness.

Over the past quarter of a century or so, the Security Council has indeed significantly changed its attitude to human rights. From largely keeping human rights outside its scope, the Security Council today sees human rights as an important factor in the situations it is striving to address. Most missions created or authorised by the Council now have various human rights tasks in their mandates, and most missions have substantive human rights capacities or components. In addition, the Council has used or developed an impressive range of tools—such as commissions of inquiry, judicial mechanisms, visiting missions or sanctions—to achieve goals with an impact on human rights in different parts of the world.

This report will examine the evolution of the Council’s approach to human rights. It will also examine the relationship between the Security Council and the parts of the UN system specifically focused on human rights, in particular the Human Rights Council and its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, as well as the High Commissioner for Human Rights. As in all of Security Council Report’s publications, we will try to assess the effectiveness of the UN’s top political organ in making an impact on the ground. We will also strive to answer the question as to what extent other UN actors contribute to creating productive human rights synergies with the Security Council.

The case studies included in this report will help us assess how far the potential of the Security Council for preventing or stopping massive human rights violations is realised and see what opportunities might lie ahead.

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