Why is Human Rights Absent from the Secretary-General’s Prevention Agenda?

Panel discussion on the "Human Rights Up Front initiative" organized by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in 2015. (UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)

At the opening of the 2018 United Nations General Assembly’s 73rd session last month, the UN and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres continued to prioritize prevention. Secretary-General Guterres has made conflict prevention his main focus, and for good reason. Violent conflicts have nearly tripled in recent years while becoming increasingly protracted. The UN has found itself unable to respond quickly and effectively to these crises. At the same time, the complex nature of growing conflict threatens to deter progress on the 2030 Agenda. Instead of merely reacting to outbreaks of violence, the secretary-general has made a strong case for investing in prevention.

To his credit, the secretary-general has been remarkably field-focused and has exhibited a clear aversion for UN bureaucracy. He is earnestly working to enact changes that will make the organization more nimble and effective on the ground. After leading the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) for 10 years, he knows all too well how the organization’s unwieldy structures and procedures can make it difficult for the UN to respond quickly to crises. He has even remarked, “Someone out to undermine the UN could not have come up with a better way to do it than by imposing some of the rules we have created ourselves.”

What Are the Reforms in Secretary-General Guterres’ Prevention Agenda?

The secretary-general has made prevention a priority across his three areas of reform: UN management; the development system; and the UN’s peace and security architecture. He has been clear about his approach to reform: the UN must eliminate inefficiencies and fragmentation and ensure better coordination among the UN’s humanitarian, development, peacebuilding, political, and human rights programming.

On the development pillar, the secretary-general has said that the sustainable development serves as the UN’s best tool for conflict prevention. Three years after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda however, the UN development system has been troubled by an outdated and archaic structure that fostered competition and duplication between UN agencies. In May, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 72/279 aimed at aligning the UN development system with the 2030 Agenda. One of the principle reforms is that Resident Coordinators (RCs) will be delinked from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and will report directly to the secretary-general. This restructuring is expected to facilitate greater accountability and impartiality of RCs to ensure a stronger more cohesive approach by the UN in the field.  The resolution also calls for a new generation of UN country teams through a reconfiguration of their physical presence, capacities, and skillsets to be more responsive to national needs and priorities. The UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) will also be strengthened as the single most important UN planning tool—pushing various UN actors to rally around common objectives and outcomes.

In restructuring the UN’s peace and security architecture, Secretary-General Guterres has sought to elevate the peacebuilding and mediation function of the UN. To reduce fragmentation, the Peacebuilding Support Office and the Department of Political Affairs will be integrated into a single Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs that will work closely with the Department of Peace Operations (formerly the Department of Peacekeeping Operations).

Management reform proposals similarly seek to streamline and simplify policies and procedures to empower managers in the field. The reform proposals would allow field managers greater authority to make decisions without being encumbered by red tape from UN Headquarters. This would allow UN field presences to respond more quickly to crises.  

Internal restructuring to streamline the organization is important, but it is not enough to strengthen the preventive work of the UN. It has long been recognized that the deterioration of human rights in a country is often a precursor to conflict. If we examine the root causes of most conflicts on the agenda of the UN Security Council, we often see that they started due to systematic discrimination or the denial of human rights in some form. Therefore, it is critical for the human rights pillar to be incorporated in the secretary-general’s conflict prevention agenda.

Human Rights Pillar Missing from Reform Agenda

While the secretary-general’s three reform streams include changes to two pillars of the UN system—development and peace and security—the third pillar of the UN system has been conspicuously ignored: human rights. This is not a great surprise. Human rights are a hot button issue that for some countries evokes the fear of intervention. Many developing states for example, argue that Western countries will use human rights mechanisms as a pretext to violate their sovereignty. Three permanent members of the UN Security Council—Russia, China, and the US—have also signaled their growing distrust and frustration with UN human rights mechanisms. Secretary-General Guterres has been treading carefully and has been reluctant to speak publicly on human rights issues. It’s no secret that the secretary-general is not a fan of “naming and shaming” countries for human rights abuses, and instead prefers behind the scenes diplomacy.

However, at a time of increasing conflict, growing disregard for international humanitarian law, and a rise in nationalism and xenophobia, the secretary-general can no longer afford to stay silent on human rights. Secretary-General Guterres acknowledged as much in his opening statement to the 73rd UN General Assembly by warning that, “the human rights agenda is losing ground and authoritarianism is on the rise.” If UN reform is about making the UN fit for purpose, then it only makes sense that in an era of growing disregard for multilateralism, Guterres would initiate reforms to strengthen the human rights pillar.

Human Rights Mechanisms Under Attack at the UN

This year has shown that the rules-based order can no longer be taken for granted – it is now under attack. More and more states are rejecting UN human rights mechanisms for a variety of reasons, one of which is to avoid scrutiny of their own human rights records. At the UN General Assembly (UNGA) high-level debate this year, US President Donald Trump touted the primacy of sovereignty over multilateralism and urged other countries to do the same. In June, the US quit the UN Human Rights Council calling it a “cesspool of political bias.” While the Trump administration had signaled its intention to quit the Human Rights Council, the decision to leave was announced amid intense criticism by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) of Trump’s policy of forcibly separating child migrants from their parents at the US-Mexico border. In August, US National Security Adviser John Bolton announced that the US would cut funding for OHCHR. Recently, Bolton also announced that the US would stop cooperating with the International Criminal Court (ICC) and threatened to sanction and prosecute ICC personnel if they investigated Americans for war crimes in Afghanistan.

China and Russia have also launched a campaign to weaken the UN human rights system. They have used their power within the UN’s budget committee to limit the number of human rights posts in the UN system. In March, both China and Russia voted to dismantle a key post within the secretary-general’s office dedicated to overseeing the UN’s work on Human Rights up Front (HRuF)—an initiative started by former Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to bolster the UN’s action on human rights. China and Russia have also zealously sought to limit the discussion of human rights issues in the UN Security Council. In March, they used their prerogative to call for a procedural vote to prevent then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, from briefing the Council on the human rights situation in Syria—the most dire in the world; a shockingly successful strategy. African members of the Council—Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire—reportedly voted against the briefing due to intense diplomatic pressure from China.

Furthermore, in a recent Security Council debate on peacekeeping, Russia suggested that human rights and humanitarian objectives should be removed from mandates to focus solely on securing political settlements. It was the first time that a member of the Security Council questioned the inclusion of human rights priorities in peacekeeping mandates and raises a potentially alarming trend.

In the past, the US defended against this kind of encroachment by China and Russia, but ideological goals such as promoting human rights have now taken a backseat to the US’ focus with slashing UN funding. During negotiations on UN reforms, the mission has been most concerned with budget implications and has adamantly opposed any measures that would increase the UN budget.

Human Rights up Front has Fallen Off the Radar

At the UN Secretariat, Secretary-General Guterres has given scant attention to HRuF. Although he has said he will work “in the spirit” of HRuF, he has not taken any action to promulgate it within UN field offices. In fact, it seems to have fallen off the radar altogether.

Since it was launched in 2013, the UN has not provided the HRuF initiative with adequate direction and enforcement for it to thrive. Resident Coordinators and UN agencies have little awareness of the initiative. The policy itself has been unclear in terms of what action UN humanitarian and development staff should take. There has also been no monitoring of or impetus given to implementation by UN country teams and therefore no accountability.

The failure of the UN country team in Myanmar to confront the government about the situation in Rakhine state serves as the most glaring recent example of lackluster implementation. An internal UN report found that the “situation in Rakhine state was forcing international institutions into complicity with systematic abuses” against the Rohingya, partly due to “excessive self-censorship” on rights. Similarly, the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar concluded that  genocide unfolded in Myanmar while the UN was supposed to be implementing its HRuF action plan. The panel noted, “Many UN agencies continued to prioritise development goals, humanitarian access and quiet diplomacy alone. That approach has demonstrably failed; the United Nations as a whole failed to adequately address human rights concerns.”

Revitalizing the UN Human Rights Pillar  

Revitalizing the human rights pillar will further bolster the secretary-general’s conflict prevention agenda. While some governments wish for the UN to act merely as an aid or humanitarian organization, the UN must remain steadfast in upholding its duty to protect and promote human rights, as stipulated in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So how can the secretary-general revitalize the human rights pillar? Here are a few ideas:

Operationalize HRuF: HRuF remains one of the best tools for ensuring that the UN engages early in addressing emerging crises. One the most urgent steps would be to develop a comprehensive plan for operationalizing HRuF in the field, with concrete tasks for UN heads of agencies so that there is no ambiguity about their responsibilities. Resident Coordinators should also be given training on HRuF and be required to report on its implementation in country. The secretary-general could also seek to build consensus on the initiative among member states, letting them know that it will remain an integral part of the UN’s work.

Reform Human Rights Council membership: The Human Rights Council is vital to the UN’s efforts to prevent human rights violations and ensure that perpetrators are held accountable. For example, it has conducted thorough and impartial fact-finding missions into atrocities committed in Myanmar, Syria, and Yemen. Nevertheless, the Human Rights Council has been widely criticized for its membership and election procedures. Allowing human rights abusers such as Saudi Arabia, Burundi, and the Philippines to sit on the Council has undermined its legitimacy. The secretary-general can address this issue and facilitate reform. He can work with the General Assembly to adopt measures to prevent the election of perpetrators going forward.

Shore up funding for OHCHR: OHCHR conducts critical human rights work in the UN system, yet remains chronically under-funded. For example, in 2018-2019, OHCHR received just 7 per cent of the total UN regular budget. OHCHR provides a variety of functions from monitoring states’ compliance with treaties, facilitating the Universal Periodic Review, to supporting the work of the special procedures on topics ranging from extrajudicial executions to the right to food. OHCHR and its field presences provide technical assistance to host governments on implementing their human rights obligations, including in the areas of administration of justice and legislative reform. Human rights components in peace missions also monitor human rights in the country by conducting fact-finding missions and publishing human rights reports. With the information it obtains from all of these sources, OHCHR remains abreast of emerging human rights crises. Yet OHCHR’s budget has not kept pace with its growing mandates and the secretary-general can rally member states to increase financial support for it to be able to carry out its critical human rights prevention work.

Ultimately, Secretary-General Guterres’ conflict prevention efforts would benefit from a greater focus on using human rights mechanisms to improve early warning and early action by the entire UN system. The credibility and legitimacy of the UN depends on its ability to stand up for victims of human rights abuses and serve as a moral voice in the world. As the former High Commissioner for Human Right said, “When the fundamental principles of human rights are not protected, the centre of our institution no longer holds.”

Jennifer Norris is a lawyer who has worked as a Human Rights Officer with the UN Mission in Congo and in Geneva. She is currently working on the UN reform process. She tweets @jennifernnorris.