The UN Approach to Global Conflict is Flawed. Can the Human Rights Council Do More to Strengthen It?

The 55th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, February 26, 2024.

The longstanding issue of United Nations (UN) Security Council reform is again at the fore, in part due to recent statements by its five permanent (P5) members indicating an openness to considering reform, and in light of the Council’s inability to act in the face of major crises like the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. Despite such momentum, the prospects of meaningful reform remain slim. The permanent members are unlikely to reduce or abandon their veto powers at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions, while deep divisions over the specifics of any expansion of non-permanent seats is likely to lead to further stagnation.

In this context, the potential role of the Human Rights Council (HRC) to address a greater range of peace and security matters should be considered. Whether through its investigative capabilities, its special rapporteur system, or the forum itself, the Human Rights Council could evolve to become a more central and effective actor in addressing peace and security risks. Rather than focusing exclusively on reforming the UN Security Council membership, perhaps we should ask whether some of its shortcomings could be addressed by more effectively drawing on the HRC’s tools and capacities.

A Defective Peace and Security Architecture? No Arguments Here

Few would contest that the system established under the UN Charter to maintain international peace and security has significant flaws. A glance at news headlines underscores that it is currently particularly ineffective. In February 2022, one member state—a permanent member of the Security Council, no less—initiated a war of aggression by invading its neighbor, Ukraine. More than two years in, the UN’s human rights office (OHCHR) has estimated that 10,582 civilians have been killed, including 587 children, and major damage has been rendered on environmental assets, public infrastructure, and food systems. While the number of military deaths on both sides still remains unclear, an estimated 500,000 military have been killed.

The Security Council met to discuss the invasion at least 42 times in 2023, but was unable to pass any non-procedural resolutions. Russia’s use of its veto did lead to a Uniting for Peace Resolution, kick-starting a series of General Assembly Emergency Special Session meetings. A carryover of geopolitical divisions, however, meant that the Assembly resolutions passed did not go beyond condemning attacks and demanding Russian troop withdrawals. The Assembly’s strongest act—suspending the rights of membership of the Russian Federation in the Human Rights Council—was symbolic at best, and even then, co-sponsors had to work harder than expected to secure the two-third majority vote required.

The events in Gaza can likewise be viewed as a failure of international peace and security. There can be no justifying Hamas’s acts. These events, however, did not occur in a vacuum. Israel has occupied the Gaza strip since 1967 and has operated a land, sea, and air blockade since 2007—both moves in violation of international humanitarian and human rights law. Disproportionate use of military force has been a further violation of international humanitarian law. This is Israel’s fifth military offensive in 15 years, and it has so far resulted in the death of more than 31,000 Palestinians, bringing the cumulative death toll to approximately 37,600. Yet the Security Council has struggled to take meaningful action. Since 1945, the United States has blocked 34 proposed resolutions, including on the illegal building of settlements, altering the status of Jerusalem, and forced displacement in occupied territory.

It is unsurprising, then, that at the top of the list of Security Council criticisms sits the veto power held by China, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. Born at another time, for a different purpose, the mechanics of the Council clearly make it unrepresentative of its members. The list of proposals on how to fix this situation is long. Some potential solutions looked promising but ultimately failed to gain consensus, such as Kofi Annan’s 2005 reform agenda. Others—most recently Liechtenstein’s Veto Initiative—have fared better but overlook that, for those willing to disregard the rules underpinning the UN Charter, global scrutiny is a weak deterrent. Unfortunate as it may be, the reality is that the structural flaws that render the system non-operational—the extensive powers enjoyed by the P5—also make it stubborn to change.

Damaged Perhaps, but Not Completely Broken

Nonetheless, judgments that the peace and security architecture is broken and not fit for purpose are perhaps overstated and certainly not constructive. First, despite all these challenges, there are and will continue to be issues that the Security Council can come together on. Its response to the threat posed by the Islamic State is a case in point. Between June 2014 and December 2017—the years the group was most active—the Security Council operated mostly as one would hope it might. Twelve resolutions were passed; the High Commissioner for Human Rights briefed members in formal session; and findings from the OHCHR investigatory mission were incorporated into subsequent resolutions. What enabled such action was, of course, context—the Islamic State posed a shared threat to all member states, and at a time when geopolitical divisions were less inflamed. This doesn’t help civilians in Ukraine, Gaza, and countless other conflicts, but it also doesn’t render the good work of the Security Council on this issue any less valuable.

Second, the current peace and security architecture is neither completely isolated nor static; it has components that are evolving and adjusting to deal with blockages to debate and action. This is possible because, while the Security Council might have primary responsibility for peace and security, it is not the sole organ responsible. Viewing the situation historically, we can see a decades-long process of reconfiguration, where lines of responsibility between the Council and others have become more dispersed. One of those moments was in 1950, when Resolution 377a—what we now refer to as Uniting for Peace—authorized the General Assembly to make recommendations for collective action, including on the use of force, when the Security Council was unable to discharge its functions effectively. There was another significant development in 2003, when the International Court of Justice confirmed in an advisory opinion that the General Assembly did not exceed its competencies by deliberating on a matter that the Security Council was actively seized of.

A more recent evolution is the growing willingness of the Human Rights Council to take action on conflicts. Indeed, while it is not a peace and security actor, it can authorize “peace and security–like” actions. Examples include mandating special rapporteur or investigatory processes specific to conflicts on the Security Council’s agenda. These may not involve the use of force or lead to any legally binding resolution, but their significance should not be underestimated. Beyond naming and shaming—which  may hold little sway in highly polarized contexts—fact-gathering processes confer a message that, at some point in the future, perpetrators of international humanitarian or human rights law may be brought to account. In highly complicated situations such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict, such measures may be the only tool at the international community’s disposal.

Messy Does Have Some Advantages

Stepping back, today’s peace and security architecture might be understood as chameleon-like, taking different forms at different moments. When conditions are amenable, the Security Council can act swiftly and purposefully, capitalizing on open and frank communication with other UN organs. But when politics brings that system to a halt, we can see other organs creatively using their competencies to bridge gaps.

Overall, this should be seen as a positive. Although it is messy and unpredictable, a playing field with multiple stakeholders bearing different tools and working methods means greater scope for dealing with threats. In other words, given that the only predictable and uniform thing about conflicts is that they are politicized, there is value in a set of loosely connected fora with different means to maneuver.

Another characteristic of this evolving peace and security architecture is its reiteration that the UN toolkit is not only stocked with guns and tanks and, moreover, sometimes non-forceful measures will be the most effective tools. As discussed, investigatory mechanisms and special procedures are a direct means of encouraging parties to consider their actions through a frame of legality and accountability. If success is measured in terms of reducing attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, such mechanisms are likely to trump the use of force every time.

This is not to conflate the current setup with a solution. Although neither the Human Rights Council nor the General Assembly faces the veto problem, they are not immune from politicization. Particularly in the General Assembly, regional blocks problematize decision making on any issue that might be construed as encroaching on national sovereignty. It is also not to say that all threats, violations, and conflicts will be dealt with. Some will not win attention due to a lack of strategic importance, member state “fatigue,” or the risks outweighing the perceived benefits.

But despite protests to the contrary, the peace and security architecture is not dead in the water. What we have is a multiplayer construct evolving in a contested manner that is able to respond (albeit imperfectly) to most situations. And at the moment, this may be the best that can be hoped for. The structuring of the Security Council was indisputably flawed, and the consequence of that mistake is that it is unlikely to be undone unless a crisis of the same magnitude as World War II is repeated.

Taking all this together, the Security Council’s veto and the degree to which it represents member states may not be the most strategic items to focus on. A more constructive move could be to support these evolutions where it makes sense or, at a minimum, not disrupt them. As discussions on UN reform gain pace, particularly in the lead-up to the Summit of the Future later this year and the General Assembly’s review of the Status of the HRC in 2026, three points might be considered.

Some Do’s and Don’ts

First, there is a need to better understand the operational value of specific entry points. For example, despite the growth of human rights fact-finding missions and investigations, there is no clear data on how and in what circumstances they reduce the willingness of parties to resort to violence or otherwise influence belligerent conduct. For such potential to be unlocked, more research is needed so that the right kinds of tools can be strengthened and leveraged.

Second, discussions around peace and security architecture reform should incorporate recent developments and new players. Consider the reform proposal crafted by the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) group, which would have required that the P5 refrain from utilizing the veto in instances where there was credible evidence of mass atrocities. The proposal did not win sufficient support in 2015, and the time is certainly not right now, but it remains a sound proposition. Variations on this—like such instances triggering a debate at the HRC—might be considered. Likewise, other actors such as the Peacebuilding Commission need to be brought into the fold. As recommended in the New Agenda for Peace, the Commission has strong potential as a source of technical advice to the Security Council and Human Rights Council, including on sensitive and cross-cutting security themes such as climate security and prevention in peacebuilding contexts.

Finally, it is imperative to carefully strike a balance between nurturing positive reforms and not overreaching to a point where the process gets derailed. The misapplication of R2P in Libya should serve as a cautionary tale in this regard. Indeed, several member states are staunchly resistant to any co-consideration of human rights and peace and security matters, concerned that it will erode coveted norms around non-interference and respect for state sovereignty. This particularly concerns actions at the Human Rights Council, which is seen as able to leverage its more democratic set-up—diverse membership, no veto powers and majority voting—to more readily engage on peace and security matters. The path must therefore be navigated carefully, particularly by avoiding any action that might be construed as pretext for interference in state affairs.

Erica Harper is the Head of Research and Policy Studies at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.