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Human rights and the Security Council: Cooperation or Cooptation?

by the URG team Beyond the Council, Blog, International human rights institutions, mechanisms and processes

On April 18th, Nikki Haley, the United States Permanent Representative in New York and President of the Security Council, called a thematic debate on human rights and the prevention of armed conflict. During the debate, the US made an important and valid point: that human rights violations are an important root cause – and early warning sign – of ‘real threats to international peace and security’; but then went on to draw the wrong (or, at least, incomplete) conclusion: that the Security Council must therefore stop ‘telling ourselves that we only deal with questions of peace and security’ and start addressing human rights violations ‘at the front end.’ This US suggestion and the responses thereto from other members of the Council, are important for two reasons: first, because they underline the importance of deeper thinking and understanding about the distinct but interconnected mandates, roles and prerogatives of the Security Council and the Human Rights Council; and second, because they underscore the vital importance – for prevention – of improved coherence between the two bodies.

Opening the Security Council debate, Ambassador Haley argued that:

‘If this Council fails to take human rights violations and abuses seriously, they can escalate into real threats to international peace and security. The Security Council cannot continue to be silent when we see widespread violations of human rights. Why would we tell ourselves that we [should] only deal with questions of peace and security, without addressing the factors that bring about the threats in the first place? We should be ready to engage early and often, in the statements we make, and in the measures we impose… It’s past time for this Council to fulfill the mandate we were given 72 years ago. It’s past time that we dedicate ourselves to promoting peace, security, and human rights.’

Listening to Ambassador Haley’s statement, a casual listener might be forgiven for concluding that the Human Rights Council doesn’t exist or, at least, is so inconsequential that it does not merit a mention during a UN debate on human rights. Indeed, some commentators[1] have suggested that the debate represented a not-too-subtle attempt by Ambassador Haley to undermine or disavow the Human Rights Council, which she has labelled ‘corrupt.’

Fortunately, subsequent speakers during the debate, while recognising that the Security Council must necessarily consider the issue of human rights violations as part of its work, rejected any suggestion that the Security Council should co-opt human rights or somehow absorb the mandate of the Human Rights Council.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, in his statement,[2] focused on the importance of building coherence and cooperation between the three pillars of the UN: peace and security, human rights, and sustainable development. While recognising the important mandate of the Security Council in preventing conflicts, and also recognising that ‘human rights is a crucial element in prevention,’ he stopped short of suggesting that the Security Council should take the lead on human rights issues, instead arguing for ‘greater cooperation between the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and other relevant organs of the UN, including the Security Council.’ (Notwithstanding, it is important – and surprising – to note that the Secretary-General failed to mention the Human Rights Council once during his speech). Eloquently making the case for stronger inter-linkages between the three pillars and for greater coherence, the Secretary-General ended by posing a hypothetical question: ‘if the most acute human rights and development concerns were immediately resolved, how many situations would still be threats to peace and security and remain on the Council’s agenda?’

Along similar lines, other members of the Security Council also drew attention to the importance of coherence – of promoting cooperation – between the UN’s human rights pillar and its security pillar, while respecting the distinct mandates of the Human Rights Council and the Security Council.

For example, Uruguay underscored ‘the importance of cooperation and exchange of information between the Security Council and the Human Rights Council;’ Sweden called on the Security Council to ‘make better use of the Human Rights Council and the OHCHR, and use early-warning mechanisms and information from the ground in its efforts to assess, prevent and respond to conflicts;’ France said it was ‘very attached’ to the Human Rights Council and said that, as part of deeper cooperation, ‘the High Commissioner for Human Rights should be able to address the Security Council as often as necessary, [while] Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council should have formal access to the Security Council;’ the United Kingdom identified OHCHR and the Human Rights Council as the ‘two institutions of the United Nations [that] are particularly vital to delivering this joined up approach to human rights,’ and commended the Council’s investigative mechanisms which provide ‘objective and vital information on active or potential conflicts;’ while Italy called for ‘greater cooperation between the Security Council and the Human Rights Council,’ including in order to ‘work together to establish a more effective [early] warning system.’

Unsurprisingly, other members of the Security Council were more blunt. Russia, while conceding that the Security Council often ‘touches upon human rights during thematic and country-specific discussions,’ nonetheless made clear that it is ‘not responsible for ensuring compliance and could not transform into a forum for discussing human rights.’ He furthermore urged members to respect the mandates of different UN bodies. Similarly, Egypt expressed concern over attempts to expand the Security Council’s mandate to include issues that fall under the auspices of other organs. Egypt argued that ‘a comprehensive approach is needed to address relevant issues, using dialogue and the exchange of best practices, with the Human Rights Council being the best forum for those activities.’[3]


[1] http://www.passblue.com/2017/04/18/nikki-haleys-historic-debate-on-human-rights-left-a-small-impression/

[2] https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2017-04-18/secretary-generals-prevention-armed-conflict-remarks

[3] All quotes and citations from: https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/sc12797.doc.htm

Feature photo: Nikki Haley (middle), United States Permanent Representative to the UN and President of the Security Council for April, at the Council’s meeting on the situation in South Sudan. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.