When UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, addressed the Human Rights Council for the first time earlier this year, he did not mince his words: ‘Disregard for human rights is a disease, and it’s a disease that is spreading.’ He appealed to the Council to be ‘part of the cure,’ especially through being ‘pivotal for prevention – sounding early warnings of crises.’
I couldn’t agree with him more. The link between conflict prevention and the promotion of human rights and democracy is clear. Just as denying basic rights fans the flames of conflict, helping to guarantee those rights can prevent conflicts happening in the first place. It has long been known that preventing conflicts is more efficient and effective than engaging with crises after they have broken out. Once a conflict does erupt, it typically becomes ever more intractable and difficult to resolve.
The EU Global Strategy, which was adopted last year and lays out our common vision in foreign and security policy, calls for more long-term work on pre-emptive peace, resilience and human rights, tying them to crisis response. It recognises that the UN system’s peace and security architecture can only be strengthened if it takes into account the UN’s work on human rights promotion and protection, and places individual people at the centre of crisis response. The UN development system also needs to be radically reoriented to support the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including in relation to conflict prevention and sustaining peace.
Strengthening resilience is not an end but a means to achieving long-term security, stability, and sustainable development in an uncertain and volatile world. Last month, the EU adopted a ‘Strategic Approach to Resilience in the EU’s External Action’, a new people-centred approach which aims to empower actors at different levels to anticipate emerging pressures, and to respond to them, while ensuring respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It recognises the need to move away from crisis containment to a more structural, long-term, non-linear approach to vulnerabilities, with an emphasis on anticipation, prevention, and preparedness. It highlights the link between inclusive and participatory societies, with accountable, transparent, and democratic institutions, and sustainable development and the prevention of violent conflict. It further argues that shortcomings in governance, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, gender equality, and a shrinking civil society space pose a fundamental challenge to society, forming barriers to the achievement of peace, stability and sustainable development.
For the EU, this means, inter alia, making progress in the area of human rights as a key contribution to successful conflict prevention. There can be no lasting peace without inclusion, without every member of society – irrespective of sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age, or sexual orientation – contributing equally to shaping the future of their country and creating resilient communities.
If we get it right, multilateral diplomacy can be an incredibly powerful tool for the prevention of conflict. A few days ago, EU foreign ministers adopted conclusions on EU priorities at the UN for the year ahead. Through those conclusions, they underscored the EU’s commitment for a strong UN as ‘the bedrock of the multilateral rules-based order’ and ‘the lynchpin of our global engagement.’
I see the EU and the UN as indispensable partners to deliver peace and security, advancing human rights and sustainable development. At a time when multilateralism is needed the most, the UN and the global rules-based order are under pressure from various quarters. Therefore, in the year ahead, a key EU priority – as identified by our European leaders – will be to uphold, strengthen, and reform the UN. The EU will strive to deepen and strengthen our partnership with the UN, and seek political momentum for reform in order to make the UN more responsive – politically and operationally – at all levels.
The EU has made the advancement of human rights a golden thread that runs throughout its external policy. Respect for human rights is a pre-requisite for sustainable peace and development. It is therefore only logical that we continue to promote the mainstreaming of human rights throughout the UN system. In this context, I would also like to highlight the importance of gender equality and women’s empowerment as well as our efforts to integrate a gender perspective in all our work. The importance of women’s meaningful participation and empowerment cannot be overstated, be it in the context of prevention, mediation or peace negotiations. It is equally important to support an enabling environment for civil society and its effective participation in the work of the UN – a powerful actor in the promotion and protection of human rights on the ground, and a swift alert/conflict prevention mechanism in the multilateral context.
Human rights will continue to be a crucial element in the EU’s external policy, as highlighted in the EU priorities at the UN for the coming year. The Human Rights Council is mandated to ‘contribute, through dialogue and cooperation, towards the prevention of human rights violations and respond promptly to human rights emergencies’ (resolution 60/251). It has hence a central and unique role in ensuring that human rights form an intrinsic part of the UN’s DNA, reacting earlier and more effectively to address human rights concerns and tackle the root causes of conflict. This is how human rights can become part of ‘the cure’.
H.E. Ambassador Peter Sørensen is the Head of the European Union Delegation to the UN, Geneva
Featured image: On the occasion of Europe Day, the EU flag flies next to the Swiss and Geneva flag on Geneva’s largest bridge, the Mont Blanc bridge, licensed under CC-BY-ND 2.0.