URG welcomes passage of landmark new UN resolution on prevention

by the URG team Prevention, Prevention, accountability and justice

Wednesday 7th October 2020, Geneva

The Universal Rights Group (URG) welcomes today’s passage of an important new Human Rights Council resolution on the prevention of human rights violations and emergencies. The resolution, led by Norway, Sierra Leone, Switzerland and Uruguay, was adopted by vote at the 45th session of the Council with 32 in favour, 11 abstentions and 3 against (Bahrain, Cameroon and Venezuela).

The resolution covers all aspects of the Council’s hitherto unused prevention mandate, as provided by the UN General Assembly with its resolution 60/251 (and specifically paragraph 5f thereof), covering both primary (or ‘upstream’) prevention, and secondary prevention (early warning and early engagement). The resolution also strengthens the Council’s ability to connect with the other pillars of the UN (the development, and security pillars) by calling on the Secretary-General to share relevant Human Rights Council reports relevant to prevention in specific contexts with other UN bodies (e.g. the Security Council), and by inviting the head of the Peacebuilding Commission to brief the Council on an annual basis.

Primary or ‘upstream’ prevention

Preventing violations from occurring in the first place means, in essence, working with all States, through cooperation and dialogue, to build national human rights capacity and resilience. The Council is – in principle – perfectly placed to play a central role in this area, both in its own regard but also in conjunction with the 2030 Agenda and the on-going reform of the UN’s development system.

The key to fulfilling the Council’s primary prevention role will be to better follow-up on and support the national implementation of States’ international human rights obligations and commitments. In addition to a greater focus on the global human rights ‘implementation agenda,’ this will require fresh thinking about how to create a ‘safe space’ for cooperation and dialogue under item 10 of the Council’s agenda (on technical assistance and capacity-building).

Within such a space, States should be encouraged to voluntarily provide information on progress with the implementation of UN human rights recommendations, identify implementation- or resilience-gaps, and then request (and have a chance of receiving) technical assistance and capacity-building support (from UN agencies and programmes, and bilateral donors) to help address those vulnerabilities. In line with GA resolution 60/251, this process must take place at the request of, and in cooperation with, the country concerned.

With this in mind, the new resolution requests the Secretary-General to conduct a system-wide assessment of current levels of, and financing for, the delivery of technical assistance and capacity building, and to provide proposals for the scaling up of that assistance in the future.

Secondary or ‘downstream’ prevention

Regarding early warning and early engagement, the resolution puts in place new processes and mechanisms premised on identifying and responding promptly to emerging patterns of violations, on encouraging cooperation and dialogue with the concerned State as well as regional (and sub-regional) organisation(s), and on securing and building trust to prevent a worsening of the situation.

In particular, it puts in place the following four systems/mechanisms to allow the UN human rights pillar is to effectively fulfil its secondary prevention mandate:

  • It calls on OHCHR to strengthen its capacity to receive, manage and rapidly analyse early warning data from across the UN system (including Resident Coordinators, Country Teams, Human Rights Advisors, and Special Procedures), as well as from national actors including NHRIs, human rights defenders and NGOs. This means building a powerful early warning unit (a kind of ‘UN situations room’) staffed by senior human rights analysts. This new early warning function would have a single, simple, yet vital responsibility: namely, the early identification of emerging patterns of human rights violations that may signal a coming crisis.
  • Where such patterns are identified, the High Commissioner now has a clear and explicit mandate to bring those situations to the urgent attention of Council members and observers, for example via briefings. Council members would then need to decide whether or not the situation merits their attention, and whether they could usefully contribute to preventing a widening or deepening of the crisis. In making those determinations, they might be guided by objective criteria (i.e. the ‘Irish Principles.’) Moreover, in addition to bringing confidential information on emerging crises to the attention of the Council, the High Commissioner would also be in a position to feed that information into relevant internal UN processes such as the regional monthly reviews (RMRs).
  • Where States conclude that they could help, the Council resolution recognises that States may engage in ‘cooperation and dialogue’ with the concerned State and region, for example by creating and dispatching ‘good offices missions’ to the country (e.g. made up, for example, of members of the Council Bureau, the High Commissioner, or eminent persons from the region), to engage all relevant national stakeholders (the government, the police, the army, opposition parties, NHRIs, national and local NGOs, journalists), facilitate national dialogue, build trust, and leverage preventative diplomacy (directly with key domestic actors). Such missions would not necessarily have to conclude with a formal written (public) report to the Council or a press release (which tend to undermine trust and preclude further cooperation).

Speaking of today’s vote, Marc Limon, Executive Director of the URG, said:

“The resolution adopted today with the overwhelming support of Council members, has the potential to transform the way the Council addresses human rights violations – moving the body from a predominantly reactive to a preventative approach. The Human Rights Council is, according to its mandate and powers, the UN’s principal ‘Prevention Council,’ and this resolution will finally allow it to play that role to the full, both in its own regard and in combination with the other two pillars of the UN.”


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