Rights and Wrongs:  The UN Seeks Discernment for Itself and Lasting Relief for Others Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Jan

This past week at UNHQ witnessed a flurry of interest in the human rights dimensions of the other UN pillars, from post-2015 development to the practice of peace operations and the protection of civilians from armed violence. Much of this activity was informed by the SG’s “Rights up Front” initiative.

On Tuesday The Netherlands sponsored a special Women, Peace and Security event, entitled “Seeking Synergy with the Reviews on Peace Operations and Peacebuilding.”  While there wasn’t much discussion of the review processes themselves, the skilled panel reinforced the need for greater vigilance both in terms of the full participation of women and in terms of how UN operations in the field treat women within their protection and care zones.

On Wednesday at Poland’s “Why have we failed in preventing genocides” event, DSG Eliasson noted the need to transform lessons “we already should have learned” into concerted action, a call that was echoed by others including the US and UK Ambassadors.  For his part, USG Dieng wisely highlighted the current, “scarce institutional investments” in preventive capacity while urging us all to do more to counter prejudice and other ‘triggers’ of mass violence.

On Thursday Switzerland organized a discussion on “human rights at work in peace operations, featuring among others ASG Šimonović and UNSMIL’s Cardone. Panel recommendations were based in part on ample documentary evidence of high level, ‘joint’ discussions that have taken place (and continue) between UNOHCHR and the human rights leadership of diverse peace operations from the DRC to Haiti.

That same day the General Assembly’s Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations (C-34) met for briefings on the important matters of conduct and discipline, as well as ‘protection of civilians’ doctrine.

And on Friday, Lithuania convened an informal Security Council meeting to help solidify the human rights dimensions of Council-authorized peace operations.  It is presumed that this discussion helped to set the bar for the upcoming Security Council debate on the Protection of Civilians scheduled for next Tuesday, January 27.

These discussions and others taking place around the UN are most welcome.  Anyone who believes that the UN system is largely insincere in its attempts to chart a humane and rights-based course for peace operations and peacebuilding is simply not paying sufficient attention.

That said there are, of course, caveats here that need to be explored.  As peace operations become more complex in their mission objectives and robust in their protection mandates, the human rights implications of peace operations grow in complexity as well.  So too, we would argue, does the level of vigilance required to maintain a human rights focus under the most challenging of field circumstances.

One example of this vigilance relates to the ‘intervention brigade’ authorized for the Eastern DRC ostensibly without ‘setting a precedent,’ a capacity which has recently seen an expansion in its focus but with little in the way of a sustained vetting of its limitations and implications for other UN country teams and humanitarian operations. Having witnessed some (welcome) security progress in the Eastern DRC, the government of Mali at a recent Security Council meeting had little apparent compulsion in asking the Council for a ‘brigade’ of its own, a call which is likely to be mimicked further as states wrestle with diverse security, human rights and governance challenges, and as vigilance regarding unintended consequences of such capacities remains elusive.

We have long cautioned against an overly militarized and de-contextualized response to the challenges of insurgency.  Not all insurgent movements are the same; some like the pastoralists roaming the ‘ungoverned’ spaces in northern Mali and border states, are arguably not ‘insurgents’ at all.   There are times when military response might well be appropriate; but for the most part, such responses are too –often a result of a clumsy (at best) process of ‘upstream’ political discernment on the part of the Security Council, as well as of the unwillingness of states facing security challenges to make the changes needed to eliminate discrimination and corruption towards regaining the broadest possible public trust.

In a UN system with its carefully worded Charter mandate for peace and security maintenance, the burden of proof regarding the effectiveness of any military response must reside with its Council authorizers as well as with those states seeking such authorizations.  Such ‘proof’ to our mind is too-often unconvincing or even lacking altogether.

Thankfully, awakenings of political, ‘upstream’ discernment were clearly on display in all of the week’s events where we were present, including the UK’s forceful declaration of need for more ‘early warning’ capacity at the “preventing genocides” event.  More pointedly, it was outgoing USG Haq at the event on peace operations and peacebuilding who reminded the audience that the pursuit of human rights pertains not only to those whom we defend, but to how we behave while defending.

Indeed, if we are not scrupulous about ensuring that our resolutions, response capacities and field conduct uphold our prevention and protection principles, we risk undermining both our own credibility and the dignity of those whom we presume to protect. The admonition by Haq for the UN “to look at itself” and curb its own abuses implies that the UN and its member states can do more to restrict the implementation of response doctrines that inadvertently perpetuate human rights abuse under the guise of eliminating it. We can only urge the full and careful incarnation of such discernment.

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