New Paper Unlocks the Potential of the UN Human Rights Council in Global Conflict Prevention

3 November 2023

The war in Ukraine and the unfolding tragedy in the Middle East have underscored the limitations of the United Nations Security Council (SC) in addressing global threats to peace and security. This has sparked a renewed interest in SC reform, but significant changes seem unlikely in the current geopolitical landscape. In this context, there is a growing need to explore the potential role of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in addressing a broader spectrum of peace and security issues.

Our new policy brief Delivering the Right to Peace: Towards a Reinforced Role of the Human Rights Council in the UN's Peace and Security Framework, jointly authored by our Head of Research and Policy Studies Dr Erica Harper and Dr Adam Day, Head of the UN University Centre for Policy Research Geneva Office, delves into the possibilities of enhancing the HRC's involvement in the UN's peace and security functions. The brief draws insights from various case studies, including Syria in 2011, Iraq in 2014, and Ukraine in 2022.

The HRC Potential to Become a More Central and Effective Player in Conflict Prevention

Whether through its investigative capabilities, its special rapporteur system, its various reporting instruments, or the forum itself, the HRC could evolve to become a more central and effective actor in conflict prevention. As it has shown for Ukraine, the HRC is at times able to take on peace and security issues that the SC is not.

Rather than focus exclusively on reforming the SC membership, this paper asks whether part of the UN’s shortcomings could be addressed by more effectively drawing on the HRC’s tools and capacities, implementing the landmark 2016 UN General Assembly declaration on the right to peace.

The paper initiates by outlining the main shortcomings of the SC and the potential for its reform. It then traces the HRC's evolution as a key actor in matters of peace and security and delves into the obstacles to positioning the HRC more prominently within the UN's conflict management architecture.

Based on this analysis, the authors present a set of ten recommendations aimed at enhancing the UN system's capacity to address ongoing shortcomings in its peace and security architecture by bolstering the role of human rights. These recommendations include reinforcing transitional justice as part of the HRC's involvement in peace and security, leveraging peace operations to connect the HRC and SC, and gradually integrating the HRC into discussions on SC reform.

‘We are not necessarily advocating for formal ties between the HRC and the SC. In fact, our analysis suggests that a gradual evolution of existing practices and greater informal connectivity between the two pillars of the UN may be the most suitable short-term approach’ explains Dr Adam Day.

‘Our analysis indicates that the HRC is unlikely to fill the void left by a dysfunctional SC. However, the HRC’s evolution as a more inclusive, legitimate, and at times effective actor in the peace and security space should generate a discussion about how to use the full UN architecture more creatively going forward’ adds Dr Erica Harper.

Discussion at the 2023 Geneva Peace Week

Dr Harper and Dr Day discussed this new publication during an event at the 2023 Geneva Peace Week on a rights-based approach to conflict prevention.

Dr Harper provided context on the traditional UN peace and security architecture, explaining its capabilities, limitations and evolving nature, and the potential role for entities like the HRC. She referred to Ukraine and Israel/Gaza, which underscore failures within the current architecture, revealing divisions, especially among the P5. Dr Harper also emphasized that despite these challenges, there are issues like responding to the Islamic State, where the UNSC can find common ground. Considering the growing risks posed by artificial intelligence and climate change, she highlighted that threats of a more generalized nature (not tied to a specific member state) may become more frequent, providing opportunities for the UNSC to take action.

Dr Harper also stressed that the system is not static: its components are adapting and reconfiguring to overcome obstacles to debate and action. While the UNSC holds primary responsibility for peace and security, it is not the sole actor. This is where the HRC comes into play. Over the last decade, the HRC has shown an increasing willingness to engage in this domain. Although not a direct peace and security actor, it can undertake actions reminiscent of those in the peace and security realm, such as appointing a country-specific special rapporteur or establishing an investigatory mechanism. These actions may not involve the use of force but carry significant weight. In complex situations like Ukraine, such measures may be the most power way to influence belligerents.

Dr Harper suggested that it may be more constructive to view the current peace and security architecture as adaptable, capable of assuming different forms as circumstances require. When the UNSC is blocked by political impasses, other UN bodies, like the HRC or the UN General Assembly, can creatively leverage their competencies to bridge gaps. While this is not a flawless solution, as these bodies are not immune to blockages and have more limited toolkits, it is not without merit. Having multiple stakeholders with distinct tools and working methods increases the scope for addressing threats. This approach may also send a powerful message to the P5, encouraging them to seriously consider fair and actionable reforms, or else new players will fill the voids.

Dr Harper concluded by addressing immediate actions, referencing the recommendations outlined in the publication, and emphasizing the importance of understanding how to support this evolving context without causing disruptions.

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