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.
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.
The URG’s prevention policy report will describe, broadly, the different stages or phases of prevention, as they relate to the crisis-conflict continuum:
• Building the resilience (by promoting and protecting human rights, and by securing the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) ‘leaving no-one behind’) of populations and society at national-level – primary prevention;
• Evidence-based early warning of emerging patterns of human rights violations, and early engagement (through cooperation and dialogue) with the concerned country to prevent the further deterioration of the situation – secondary prevention; and
• Where a crisis escalates and the situation becomes marked by gross and systematic human rights violations, then other more ‘downstream’ interventions (e.g. conflict prevention, peacekeeping, etc.) become necessary – tertiary prevention.
Using this conceptual framework, this policy report will 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 then 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. Third, the report will argue that in order to finally move prevention ‘from rhetoric to reality,’ the UN must shift the emphasis of its strategy to ‘upstream’ prevention and, in particular, must strengthen primary and secondary prevention interventions by the Human Rights Council. In support of this argument, the report will make a political but also a business (economic) case for placing human rights at the heart of prevention. Finally, the report will review recent steps taken by the Human Rights Council to ‘operationalise’ its prevention mandate and prerogatives, as a key pillar of a revitalised UN prevention agenda; and propose a simple five-point plan to ensure the success of this crucial endeavour.
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