Human rights and the Security Council: practical steps to build effectiveness

by Joanna Weschler By invitation, Human rights institutions and mechanisms

In a newly released report, Human Rights and the Security Council: A Relationship in Need of Thoughtful, Creative and Constant Cultivation, published by the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights @JBI_HumanRights, its author, Joanna Weschler, argues that despite the difficult political dynamics at present, the Security Council still has an impressive range of tools, working methods and practices at its disposal that – if used creatively and with ongoing attention – can have significant impact on human rights conditions for many people around the world.

Over the past several years, the Security Council has been largely impotent vis-a-vis the world’s major human rights crises (i.e., those involving massive human rights violations), including those in Syria, Myanmar, Yemen, Ethiopia, and – most recently – Ukraine. The recurrence of human rights crises followed by unfulfilled pledges on the part of the UN system that such failures would never happen again calls for a new concerted effort to salvage the UN human rights agenda, with the Security Council fully using its potential in this context.

After nearly a quarter of century of improvement, with the Security Council increasingly accepting human rights as a factor in its analyses and actions, recent years have seen the opposite trend. One sign of a lessened Security Council focus on human rights is that the previously quite robust direct interaction between the Security Council and the UN human rights system has diminished quite considerably.

A comparison of actions in the first month and the first six months following, first, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and, second, its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, is particularly telling.

  • In 2014, the New York-based Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights first briefed the Security Council just a few days after Crimea’s annexation and again less than a month later.
  • In 2022, the Security Council held nine meetings on Ukraine during the first month following the 24 February invasion, with briefers including the Secretary-General, the USG for Political Affairs, the USG for humanitarian affairs, the USG for disarmament affairs, the High Commissioner for Refugees, the head of the World Health Organization, or the director of the UN Children’s Fund, but with no briefing by the High Commissioner for Human Rights or a representative thereof. The first time the High Commissioner was invited to brief the Council on Ukraine was in May, more than two months into the conflict.
  • In the first six months following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, a senior UN human rights official briefed the Council – in a public meeting or in consultations – five times.
  • In the first six months following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in 2022, a senior human rights official briefed the Council – in a formal meeting – once.

Against the backdrop of the ongoing human rights tragedies accompanying conflicts that the Security Council has been discussing repeatedly and has failed to address meaningfully, the current picture is quite grim. Yet, it is important to remember that in previous decades the Security Council had made significant strides in acknowledging the relevance of human rights to fulfilling its main duty – that of maintaining international peace and security. It also developed or adapted several tools that have been used to promote and protect human rights. In addition to human rights components of peace operations and targeted sanctions, the Council has also creatively used visiting missions as well as different meeting formats to address conflict situations involving severe human rights violations. These practices and tools still exist and this legacy needs to be preserved, regularly drawn upon, and further developed.

With the above in mind, the new report offers several specific recommendations and options. Member States – including those not on the Security Council – are the main addressees of the recommendations. The paper also offers some cautionary tales. While the current decline has been gradual, there are three specific moments which in hindsight appear to have set human rights back at the Security Council, and have had consequences far beyond the respective events. It is ironic that each of these setbacks had been caused by member States generally supportive of human rights. In each case, a miscalculation played a role and each of these examples provides some lessons to be learned.

January 2015: during its Presidency of the Security Council, Chile dropped the practice of inviting the High Commissioner for Human Rights to brief at the periodic open debates on the protection of civilians in armed conflict (PoC). It had been a standing opportunity for the High Commissioner to address the Security Council on issues of their choice and it was lost. The High Commissioner has not briefed during PoC debates since then, and – what is more worrying – from that point on there has been an overall sharp decrease in invitations for the High Commissioner to attend Security Council meetings.

April 2017: during its Presidency of the Security Council, the US attempted to add human rights as a thematic issue to the Security Council agenda. There was pushback from several Council members who might be prepared to consider human rights on a case-by-case basis but would not accept it as a regular theme or as a norm. Eventually, the briefing the US had planned was held under a general agenda item, but the meeting as such provided an opportunity to revive controversies that seemed to be settled a decade earlier – such as the Security Council’s supposed encroachment onto the mandates of other UN bodies.  In addition, following the briefing, Russia issued a policy paper, published as a document of the General Assembly and the Security Council, on the need for a strict division of labour among UN bodies when it comes to human rights.

March 2018: during the Dutch Presidency of the Security Council, France, with the support of Peru, Poland, Sweden, the UK, and the US requested a briefing on Syria by the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The briefing was scheduled for 19 March but, because Bolivia, China and Russia had signalled their opposition, a procedural vote was expected at the outset of the meeting.

Procedural votes (for which there is no veto, and a decision is adopted with any nine votes in favour) had been rare in Council practice. However, starting with the December 2014 procedural vote on adding the human rights situation in the DPRK onto the Security Council’s agenda, such votes became more frequent. To avoid unexpected outcomes, members developed a practice of requesting the meeting in question through a letter to the President of the Security Council and making sure that the letter had at least nine signatures. For a reason that remains unclear, this had not been done ahead of the planned Syria briefing and when the vote was taken, the proponents came one vote short of having the briefer agreed to. This failure to secure the votes is even more embarrassing given that High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein had flown in from Geneva and was in the chamber during the vote. The practice, in place since the start of the Syria conflict, of inviting the High Commissioner to some briefings on Syria, disappeared.

One of the factors contributing to the Security Council’s lessened engagement on human rights appears to be the current predominance of the penholder system. Under an informal arrangement, for over a decade now, the ‘P-3’ (France, the United Kingdom, and the United States) have become ‘penholders’ on most conflict-related issues on the Security Council’s active agenda. This function goes beyond drafting outcome texts and chairing subsequent negotiations. With rare exceptions, penholders take the initiative on all Council activities concerning that situation, such as holding emergency meetings, organising open debates, or undertaking and leading visiting missions.

The emergence of the penholder system has significantly changed the dynamics among the Security Council members. Historically, when, in the wake of the Cold War, human rights became more present on the Security Council’s agenda, elected members were as likely as their permanent colleagues to take initiatives. Under the penholder system, elected members have become considerably less proactive. Permanent members also defer to the penholder and hold back with their own initiatives on issues where another P-3 member is holding the pen. An important aspect here is the loss of a sense of shared responsibility to take action among Security Council members. This has been detrimental to the Council’s overall effectiveness but is particularly problematic in situations of serious human rights violations, given the fact that acting quickly in such cases is key.

The sense of shared responsibility to act in the face of massive human rights violations should go beyond the Security Council. Members who are simultaneously on the Security Council and the Human Rights Council should take it upon themselves, either collectively or individually, to promote greater connectivity and coordination between the two bodies.

When the Human Rights Council Special Procedures mandate-holders report on situations that are on the Security Council’s agenda, members should ask the Secretary-General to regularly transmit these reports to the Security Council. Similarly, when a thematic Special Procedures mandate submits a report on a situation on the Security Council agenda, members of the Human Rights Council should also request the report’s transmittal to the Security Council.

The recent appointment of a new High Commissioner for Human Rights may also be a good moment for different actors within the UN secretariat to work on reversing some of the negative trends. There should be a concerted effort on the part of the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner to restore more frequent direct interactions of the UN human rights system with the Security Council. Particularly important is to work on restoring the role of the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights as the day-to-day human rights interlocutor for the Security Council.

In situations of a newly unfolding crisis, where the Security Council is likely to seek frequent briefings, there is a need to ensure that a human rights briefer is invited to these meetings from the start and regularly thereafter. This would be consistent with the commitment in the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights to ‘[R]egularly provide human rights analysis and information to the Security Council […] on current and potential human rights and humanitarian crises.’

Borrowing another phrase from the Call to Action, all actors committed to the promotion of human rights must consistently and creatively use the full spectrum of tools and channels to raise awareness, prevent crisis, and protect people effectively.

Joanna Weschler spent over two decades at Human Rights Watch, holding a variety of posts, including that of the organization’s first UN representative, for both New York and Geneva, from 1994 to 2005. From 2005 until 2021, she was director of research and then deputy executive director of Security Council Report.

Photo credit: A wide view of the Security Council meeting on strengthening accountability and justice for serious violations of international law, under maintenance of international peace and security. On the screen is Michelle Bachelet, Former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

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