Transforming universal norms into local reality

In focus: prevention

UN leaders have long understood and contended that, when it comes to crises, conflicts and natural disasters, ‘prevention is better than cure.’ Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, writing in a 1999 report on the work of the Organisation, made this point particularly powerfully. Yet he also conceded that the UN had consistently failed to match rhetoric about the importance of prevention with the institutional and operational reforms necessary to make it real.

This gap – between rhetorical support for and the practical reality of prevention at the UN – is evident across each of the Organisation’s three pillars but is particularly significant (and damaging) for the human rights pillar. The Human Rights Council (Council) and its mechanisms, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), are – in principle – ideally placed to play a central role in the current Secretary-General António Guterres’ re-energised ‘prevention agenda.’ Indeed, if the Secretary-General and the wider UN family do want to move from a reactive approach to crises and conflicts to a genuinely preventative approach (i.e. an approach that emphasises primary and secondary prevention – see below), then particular attention must be paid to operationalising the Council’s prevention mandate and prerogatives.

With this programme the URG seeks to promote and strengthen the UN’s human rights pillar preventative capacity.

Our projects

Prevention: operationalization of the Council’s prevention mandate (paragraph 5f GA res. 60/251)

The Human Rights Council’s mandate to respond to human rights violations, including gross and systematic violations – as set down in operative paragraph 3 of GA resolution 60/251 – is well known. Less well known, but equally important, is the Council’s mandate to prevent such violations from happening in the first place and to respond promptly to emerging crises.

Firstly, paragraph 5f begins by calling upon the Council to work, ‘through dialogue and cooperation, towards the prevention of human rights violations.’ In other words, the Council is mandated to prevent human rights violations before they ever occur, by building domestic human rights capacity and resilience and by focusing on root causes.

Second, under the latter part of paragraph 5f, the Council is mandated to ‘respond promptly to human rights emergencies.’ In other words, where primary prevention fails and where there are early warning signs of emerging patterns of human rights violations, the Council should act quickly to reach out to the State (and region) concerned to prevent a widening or deepening of the crisis.

Third, paragraph 5f is clear that the Council can and should ‘contribute’ to prevention. That means any new policy framework operationalizing paragraph 5f must not be seen in isolation, but as part of a coherent UN-wide prevention agenda.

Notwithstanding this clear and explicit mandate, and eleven years after the Council’s establishment, member States are yet to put in place an explicit and coherent policy framework (e.g. a strategy, dedicated processes, tailored mechanisms) to fulfil the body’s prevention mandate.

Starting in 2017, the Universal Rights Group is implementing a project that has the broader objective of promoting the operationalisation of the Human Rights Council’s prevention mandate.

The business case: human rights at the heart of prevention

In URG’s view, the UN’s prevention agenda must cover the full spectrum of a continuum that can see a State move from stability or ‘normalcy’ to large-scale violent conflict. However, it should focus most heavily on the ‘upstream’ aspects of prevention – in other words, on preventing human rights violations, preventing escalating patterns of human rights violations, and preventing crises. Yes, the prevention of violent conflict, of crimes against humanity, and of recurrence should be covered too. But they should not be the principal focus; for the simple and inescapable reason that the most effective (and cost-efficient) preventative interventions are those that take place the furthest ‘upstream.’ The main reason for the failure of UN prevention agendas over the past thirty years is, simply, that they have got this the wrong way around. They have focused – and indeed, they continue to focus – policy attention and resources primarily on ‘downstream’ points of intervention.

One important consequence of such a (long overdue) shift from a ‘downstream’ to an ‘upstream’ conception of UN prevention, would be to automatically place a spotlight on the importance of human rights. Just as the enjoyment of human rights (and respect for human rights on the part of the government) is key to building a stable and resilient society, so patterns of human rights violations are the surest indicator of impending crisis or conflict. There is simply no escaping the logic or the importance of this point. Therefore, just as any UN- wide prevention strategy must, if it is to be effective, emphasise ‘upstream’ interventions, so it necessarily follows that it must emphasise human rights.

This project seeks to analyse three decades of UN efforts to put in place a workable and effective ‘prevention agenda,’ and to understand why those efforts have largely failed. It will also look at the latest attempt to revive the agenda – by the current UN Secretary-General António Guterres – to understand whether he is avoiding the mistakes of the past. Finally, the project will look at the business (economic) case for placing human rights at the heart of prevention.

Relevant documents