What's In Blue

Human Rights Briefing

Tomorrow afternoon (Tuesday, 18 April), the Council is expected to hold a public meeting, in briefing format, under the title “Maintenance of international peace and security: human rights and prevention of armed conflict”. Secretary-General António Guterres is expected to brief.

A concept paper circulated to Council members by the US on 3 April states that “the Security Council has never before held a meeting dedicated to and focused exclusively on human rights.” The Council has over the years discussed human rights in specific situations on numerous occasions and more than half of Council-mandated peace operations have human rights components. However, it has indeed never discussed human rights as a thematic issue.

In the UN’s first several decades, human rights were seen as being largely outside of the scope of the Council and were seldom mentioned within its confines. Governments were 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 the majority of issues on the Council agenda had been conflicts between states, towards the end of the 1980s the nature of the situations the Council needed to address were increasingly related 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.

The concept paper states that “human rights violations should be seen as an issue that falls within the Security Council’s primary responsibility for maintaining peace and security even when they do not have an immediate cross-border impact.” The paper further argues that “addressing human rights violations and abuses before they reach the crisis point can avert the need for more robust Security Council action or for other international or regional response.”

Over the past quarter of a century or so, the Council has significantly changed its attitude to human rights. For a number of reasons, including pragmatic ones, it today sees human rights as an important factor in numerous specific situations it is striving to address. Most missions created or authorised by the Council now have various human rights tasks in their mandates, and have substantive human rights capacities or components. In addition, the Council has used or developed a broad 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. The US concept paper asks what type of measures the Council should take to respond to serious human rights violations and abuses, and what are examples of effective Council response and lessons learned, as well as action the Secretary-General can take to avert degeneration into threats to international peace and security.

The concept paper also asks whether the Council should receive regular briefings on emerging and current situations involving serious human rights violations and abuses. The Council has generally come to appreciate the usefulness of human rights information when discussing specific situations. After the establishment of the post in 1993, the top UN human rights official, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, has gradually become an important interlocutor for the Council. The High Commissioner, the Deputy High Commissioner or the head of the New York office of the High Commissioner have briefed the Council on numerous occasions, both formally and informally, in public sessions and in consultations. Most Council members, including those among the permanent members 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 held a High Commissioner’s briefing at some point.

Initially, the US had wanted to hold the briefing under a new agenda item “Human rights and international peace and security”. A procedural vote was expected in order to get agreement on holding the meeting as several members raised objections when the programme of work was being adopted at the beginning of the month. As stated in rule 9 of the Council’s rules of procedure, the first item of the provisional agenda for each meeting of the Council shall be the adoption of the agenda. It has been the practice of the Council to adopt the agenda without a vote unless an objection is raised. If differences over the agenda cannot be worked out among Council members ahead of time, they are resolved by a procedural vote. Procedural decisions, in order to be adopted, require nine votes in favour and there is no veto.

The last three procedural votes by the Council also concerned human rights. In December 2014, at the initiative of Australia, ten Council members requested that the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) “be formally placed on the Council’s agenda without prejudice to the item on non-proliferation” in the DPRK. China objected and a vote was called for, with 11 members being in favour, two abstaining and two permanent members, China and Russia, voting against. A similar scenario played itself out in December in 2015 and 2016, with respect to holding a human rights focused meeting on the DPRK.

As the date of the planned meeting approached, it appeared that a procedural vote to add a new agenda item might not be successful. China and Russia had all along been expected to oppose adding human rights as a new item to the agenda of the Security Council. Late last week, Non Aligned Movement (NAM) members Bolivia, Egypt, Ethiopia and Senegal and NAM observer Kazakhstan signaled their opposition to adding human rights as a new thematic item to the Council agenda. It seems a compromise was reached to hold the meeting under the existing agenda item “Maintenance of international peace and security”.

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