UN efforts over the past thirty years to shift its approach to crises and conflicts from reaction to prevention have largely failed for two main reasons, according to a new report by the Universal Rights Group (URG) think tank. First, because it is far easier for world governments to invest political and financial capital in responding to humanitarian disasters (especially when images of those disasters are beamed live on CNN) than it is for them to invest in long-term efforts to build societal resilience or in early warning/early response measures that are largely invisible to the general public. Second, because the UN’s human rights pillar, today led by the Human Rights Council, has been systemically excluded from those efforts, even though it has a vital role to play – especially in ‘upstream’ prevention interventions.
URG’s new report, entitled ‘The Prevention Council: The business case for placing human rights at the heart of the UN’s prevention agenda,’ calls on UN member States to learn from these past mistakes and place a robust Human Rights Council prevention strategy at the centre of Secretary-General António Guterres’ revitalized UN prevention agenda. To help persuade governments to take this long overdue step, which would have enormous benefits for human dignity, rights and lives, the report also presents a business- or economic-case for a human rights-first approach to prevention. That analysis, conducted with the economist behind the recent World Bank-UNDP report on ‘Pathways for Peace,’ finds that the international community could potentially save billions of dollars a year.
The UN’s long love-affair with prevention
Ever since the establishment of the UN in 1946, the Organisation has recognised the central importance and value of prevention. Indeed, the very first words of the UN Charter make clear that the Organisation’s overriding mission is to prevent the gross and systematic human rights abuses and violent conflicts that had so scarred the world during the early 20th century:
‘We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…’
The last four UN Secretaries-General have each prioritised turning those words, and the concept of prevention, into an everyday practical reality for the Organisation. Unfortunately, despite this persistent focus on prevention over more than three decades, when it comes to turning the broadly held mantra that ‘prevention is better than the cure’ into concrete international policies, the UN is no further forward today than it was in 1992.
Why is that the case?
One key reason has long been understood by UN leaders: the short- term political-economic calculations of politicians. As remarked by Kofi Annan in his 2000 ‘Millennium Report:’ ‘the UN has long argued that prevention is better than cure; that we must address root causes, not merely their symptoms. But aspirations have yet to be matched by effective action.’ ‘Political leaders,’ he explained, ‘find it hard to sell prevention policies abroad to their public at home, because the costs are palpable and immediate, while the benefits – an undesirable or tragic future event that does not occur – are more difficult for the leaders to convey and the public to grasp.’
URG’s new policy report argues that there is also a second key reason: the de facto side-lining of the UN’s human rights pillar. Each of the last four UN Secretaries-General has recognised, in principle at least, the importance of the human rights pillar as a key part of a ‘whole of UN’ approach to prevention. Unfortunately, when it came to putting forward concrete proposals, each retreated into a more traditional conception of prevention as being synonymous with ‘conflict prevention’ or ‘atrocity prevention’ and therefore something to be carried out, principally, by the Security Council.
URG’s report argues, using political and economic analyses, that this has been a critical flaw in the UN’s long-standing prevention agenda. In reality, the international human rights system must play a central role in primary (building national resilience to prevent human rights violations from happening in the first place) and secondary prevention (early warning and early engagement), if the UN is to ever deliver on its promise to ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.’ By focusing on ‘downstream’ rather than ‘upstream’ interventions, the UN’s traditional (and costly) focus on preventing the imminent outbreak of violent conflict, making peace, and preventing recurrence has been doomed to fail.
The business case
To correct these mistakes, and build a workable prevention policy at the UN, URG calls on the UN Secretary-General and member States to place the Human Rights Council and the wider UN prevention pillar at the heart of efforts to revitalise the UN’s prevention agenda. To support this argument the report presents an economic or business case for such an outcome, which shows that, inter alia:
- Human rights-integrated prevention strategies designed to build national resilience and stop low-level human rights situations from escalating into full-blown crises marked by gross and systematic violations, would provide net benefits (prevented damage for the State concerned and savings for the international community) of US$4 billion per year (in an optimistic scenario).
- Where such rights-integrated strategies prevent violent conflict, the economic benefits (net annual savings) for the State concerned and the international community would be even higher (due to the huge costs of war, and the cost-efficiency of human rights interventions), namely over US$35 billion in a neutral scenario, and almost US$71 billion in an optimistic scenario.
A five-point plan for prevention
Building on this political-economic analysis of prevention, URG’s new policy report concludes by presenting a five-point plan for the operationalisation of the Human Rights Council’s prevention mandate. These proposals are expected to inform deliberations in Geneva in 2020, during which time States are expected to debate and adopt a new resolution that will create the necessary processes and mechanisms to finally turn prevention from ambition to reality.
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