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Bringing human rights to the Security Council

The Human Rights Likeminded Office is expanding its work to bring human rights to the Security Council. This is no small thing and it has been in the making for two years, so we're super excited about it!


Addressing below:

  • The Security Council is without a question the most powerful body of the UN.

  • The problem is that it doesn't advance human rights enough.

  • The UN's human rights machinery has to provide early warning to the Council.

  • Politics and limited capacity pose obstacles.

  • Making key information accessible for everyone will bypass these obstacles.

  • This is just the beginning.

The Security Council is without a question the most powerful body of the United Nations. It is the only one whose decisions are binding - imposing obligations on governments, including sanctions.


The problem is that the Security Council's decisions don't usually do enough to advance human rights. Human rights are often considered too controversial and outside the scope of the Security Council's mandate, which is maintaining international peace and security. However, the UN regularly recognizes that peace and security are linked with human rights. They are traditionally referred to as two of the three pillars, along with the third pillar, sustainable development. One is dependent on the other. As noted by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Security Council has acknowledged that serious human rights abuses are not only a consequence of conflict but “can be an early indication of a descent into conflict or escalation of violence.” The Security Council recognized that governments' domestic implementation of human rights obligations can “contribute to timely prevention of conflicts.” [See Security Council resolution S/RES/2171(2014)].


Therefore, the UN's human rights machinery has a responsibility to provide early warning and inform the Security Council of risks, so that it can take preventive measures. That is, to prevent human rights violations, as well as wider conflict or crisis. The challenge is to ensure that the relevant information reaches the members of the Security Council, so that they can act upon it. That is what our organization, the Human Rights Likeminded Office, will focus on.


Our approach is aimed at mitigating, to a degree, the main obstacles to advancing human rights in the Security Council. The obvious obstacle is political, but it is made worse by how decisions are made in the Security Council. Five countries have a veto power. Among them, China and Russia are especially resistant to advancing human rights in the Security Council and other fora. To avoid a veto, more compromises are made than in the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, where a simple majority can suffice (though reaching consensus is always preferable). This makes Security Council outcomes weaker on human rights. It gets even worse if all diplomats buy into the conservative argument that the Security Council should only consider security concerns, in isolation. The three pillars mentioned earlier represent the idea that the international community should take a holistic approach, rather than a siloed one, in addressing global challenges.


Informal information-sharing bypasses political obstacles. If due to politics, the Council could not receive certain UN reports or briefings from human rights experts, the Council can still benefit from the same inputs, put together in a digested form by our organization. If politics discourage diplomats in the Security Council from actively seeking information on human rights, we make it easier by bringing the information to them, and in the most concise and relevant manner. If there is political resistance to human rights advocacy, our approach leaves the choice to diplomats to take and use the points they find most in line with their national position. We just help make them available at their fingertips.


Another obstacle is technical - relating to capacity. This may include lack of specialized human rights expertise (as it's not normally the focus of diplomats in the Security Council). There may also be limited availability of UN experts to brief and inform diplomats in the Security Council (though again, the reason is usually political). And most critically, there is a clear gap in access to useful information. For one thing, conservative countries manage to prevent the submission of human rights reports from Geneva to the Security Council. But also, most human rights organizations are focused on other parts of the UN and avoid the Security Council. Joanna Weschler, who used to work in the organizations Security Council Report and Human Rights Watch, mentioned this in her recent discussion paper on the Security Council and Human Rights. By the way, she also stated in the report that the situation in the Security Council has only been getting worse in recent years, from a human rights perspective.


Most obviously, the briefing notes that our organization will provide, will fill the gap in access to information on human rights. But they will also help overcome the other technical concerns. Where human rights expertise is missing, diplomats will be able to rely on our inputs, which will already articulate the key human rights concerns. In addition, where inputs from UN experts have not reached the Security Council, they will be synthesized and accessible through our outputs. Perhaps our outputs can even generate more interest in human rights, to spur demand for more inputs, directly from UN experts, even through informal briefings.


We hope to overcome these political and technical obstacles by sharing concise and relevant information publicly, through the website of the Human Rights Likeminded Office (HRLO.org). We'll make a deliberate effort to reach likeminded diplomats in the Security Council, as they are the ones with decision-making power, to make a difference in the Council.


This work is made possible thanks to a generous grant from the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights (who also published Joanna Weschler's discussion paper mentioned above) and the Leo Nevas Family Foundation. We are also grateful to the International Disability Alliance for its administrative support.


This is just the beginning. We're already talking to other governments, human rights organizations and foundations that are considering sponsoring this work. We are initially covering about half of the Security Council's agenda for the duration of five months. There are several opportunities to expand this work - to cover the Security Council's entire agenda, promote its long-term sustainability and produce outputs for other bodies, such as the Human Rights Council and Peacebuilding Commission, to further strengthen the relationship between peace and security and human rights throughout the UN.

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