As global tensions mount and with daily atrocities in the news, there is increasing concern over how to protect civilians and vulnerable populations. The US holds the Presidency of the UN Security Council for April and has a chance to take a strong stance in defense of human rights. Instead, the US’ plans to hold an open briefing on human rights at the Security Council has some concerned it will serve to undermine already existing international bodies devoted to protecting human rights and further polarize attempts to address human rights abuses.
The discussion is being branded as the first ever human rights debate in the Council, which is not entirely true. Human rights are regularly discussed in thematic agendas and contexts such as peacekeeping, issuing of sanctions, or when setting up commissions of inquiry or referrals to the International Criminal Court. Viewed in isolation, a discussion highlighting the nexus of human rights and international peace and security is welcome and appears extremely timely. For some time, advocates and the UN have been calling for a preventative approach by putting human rights at the heart of the Security Council’s actions, given the Council’s failure to act in light of the most egregious human rights abuses.
But the current US approach could have a dangerous side effect by risking further polarization and politicization of human rights. This would play into the hands of precisely those countries such as Russia or China who like to distract from their own human rights abuses by blaming the US for double standards.
For once, there is a glaring contrast between the rhetoric by the US at the UN and realities coming out of D.C. The Administration has rarely passed up an opportunity to demonstrate its outright hostility to human rights: From calls by the President to legitimize torture, rolling back police reform, blatantly attacking women’s human rights, shutting down the refugee resettlement program or cutting UN funding for life-saving services, the Administration has been eager to showcase quick “wins” catering to the populist right rather than genuine reform. The US President joins the notorious chorus of those who believe human rights are for the weak, undermine nation's strength, or even hinder military efficiency.
In light of recent remarks by the US’ UN Ambassador Haley, slamming the UN Human Rights Council, the debate appears to also be a not-so-subtle attempt to undermine the role of the UN Human Rights Council. Despite reassurances that it is not, the current approach could make the Human Rights Council appear superfluous, preparing the narrative for the US to pull out, while conveniently boasting the human rights image of the US on an international stage.
But pushing for a human rights debate in the Security Council while ignoring the work of the Human Rights Council does a disservice to human rights and display a lack of understanding of the UN system. The Human Rights Council has a much broader mandate covering all human rights, including civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights. It is an important tool for holding all UN member states accountable, including in peacetime before a situation escalates into instability and conflict.
The Security Council, in contrast, has a very distinct role in bearing the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and thus needs to focus more closely on human rights violations and abuses that are of relevance to conflict prevention, response and peacebuilding. In other words, if the Human Rights Council is the hospital, the Security Council is the intensive care unit.
In contrast to the Security Council, whose archaic composition, including the five veto powers has been rightly criticized, the Human Rights Council offers a wide membership and a unique set of procedures and mechanisms, such as the Universal Periodic Review, to peer review all 193 UN Member States. It also has institutionalized civil society access in a way that other UN bodies still need to step up to. It is no secret that on several occasions, Security Council members have quietly rejected civil society speakers in order to hide situations from international scrutiny. Ambassador Haley’s recent commitment to more transparency deserves praise, but the US should follow through and ensure civil society is at the table to speak truth to power, regardless of political convenience.
If the US is genuine about mainstreaming human rights into the work of the Security Council, here are three exemplary areas that could use support: Ambassador Haley has prominently stated that she is not afraid of “calling out” and “taking names”. This concept is not new to courageous whistleblowers and human rights defenders around the world, who call out human rights abuses committed by the most powerful in fear of reprisals, often risking their life or the safety of their families. The US should use its political weight to support and listen to civil society groups by ensuring they can access the Security Council and the UN, including during its own presidency.
Several Security Council agendas incorporate human rights, such as the women, peace and security agenda, which calls for the meaningful inclusion of women in peace negotiations and addresses the scourge of conflict-related sexual violence. The US has yet to implement this agenda and so far has not invited civil society to country briefings as mandated in Security Council resolution 2242. The decision to defund UNFPA based on false allegations shed light on a common US practice to use funding as a way of bullying UN agencies. Through censorship and funding bans, the US caters to an extremist agenda by continuing to deny life-saving medical services needed by girls and women, namely safe termination of pregnancy, thus violating Security Council resolutions on conflict-related sexual violence and international humanitarian law, including in areas where rape is used as a weapon of war.
The recent shameful eighth veto by Russia to shield the Syrian regime from accountability painfully illustrated again the Security Council’s failure to hold the worst perpetrators accountable. Had it not been for the Human Rights Council, who in 2011 established an independent international Commission of Inquiry on Syria, many of the horrendous crimes by the government would have never been documented including chemical weapon attacks.
Rather than undermining this work, the US should support initiatives to restrain the use of the veto in cases of mass atrocities and seek creative alternate ways to ensure accountability, for instance by supporting the recently established international, impartial and independent investigative mechanism on Syria in the UN General Assembly. The same can be said of the ongoing atrocities committed by ISIS, which both the UN and US have found to constitute genocide against the Yazidi. Defeating ISIS’ ideology through military means has proven insufficient. Instead, the US could join other UN member states in ensuring that ISIS members face trial and victims receive justice by supporting international judicial institutions.
Rather than abandoning its institutions, the best way to fight bias and double standards at the UN is to make sure the UN is not a toothless tiger and has the ability to address human rights violations wherever they occur, regardless of the political situation, or a country’s wealth, geography or power. The US must hold itself and the UN accountable to a key promise of the UN Charter, signed on 26 June 1945 in San Francisco: to uphold fundamental, universal human rights.
Stephanie Johanssen is the UN and EU Director at the Global Justice Center. Prior to joining the Global Justice Center she worked for law firms, the Center for European Integration Studies and the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Stephanie Johanssen holds a law degree from the University of Bonn in Germany.