Policy or aspiration: shedding light on the current status of the UN's Human Rights Up Front initiative

Danica Damplo, Rodrigo Saad

The question of ‘what happened to Human Rights up Front’ is an oft-repeated refrain in meetings with New York civil society. However, little consistent and clear information has been provided by the UN secretariat on the status of the initiative. This has led many inside and outside the system to claim that the initiative is dead or reconfigured beyond recognition. This report, funded and supported by the Universal Rights Group and the Jacob Blaustein Institute, is the product of nearly a year of conversations, research and analysis, and serves to shed light on the current status of the UN’s “Human Rights up Front” (HRuF) initiative, by identifying key areas in which it resembles as well as differs from the original.

In 2013, then United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the HRuF initiative, following the publication of an Internal Review Panel report by Charles Petrie documenting the catastrophic failure of UN actors to protect and come to the aid of populations caught up in violent conflict in Sri Lanka. Grounded in the UN Charter, HRuF sought to ensure that UN staff in the field took a cross-pillar approach to the prevention of serious human rights violations and conflicts, regardless of their agency or mandate. It envisioned early identification of risk situations combined with a leveraging of the full range of UN mandates and capacities to ensure that country-level action is adequately supported by UN headquarters. HRuF was received warmly by human rights activists, many of whom hoped the initiative would allow the UN to uphold its responsibilities under the UN Charter, even in the most difficult operational contexts.

However, as a result of considerable internal and external challenges, the HRuF initiative did not fully take root in the UN system. This was revealed particularly starkly in Myanmar, where the UN, confronted with a years-long crisis that culminated in a violent campaign by armed forces against Rohingya communities in 2017, made the same mistakes that the Petrie report had documented in Sri Lanka only a few years earlier. Additionally, the 2017 termination of the UN Director-level post dedicated to the initiative’s implementation, coupled with a lack of public information regarding the initiative, have led many to believe that it has been weakened, essentially altered, or completely eclipsed by Secretary-General António Guterres’ reform agenda. While the reality is more complex, the findings of recent reports on Myanmar confirm that scepticism about the effectiveness, if not the continued existence, of the present HRuF initiative is warranted.

In light of these recent reports on the UN’s failures in Myanmar, tragically reminiscent of those that inspired the creation of the HRuF initiative, the present report identifies the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead, including in the context of the new UN reforms, which could have a substantial impact on the organisation’s ability to respond as “one UN” to future human rights crises.

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