Addressing rights violations as warning signs of conflict is even more urgent in the COVID-19 era, the United Nations senior human rights official told the Security Council in a 7 July videoconference meeting*, as she spotlighted the role peacekeepers can play in monitoring virus-related stigma, hate speech and the impact of containment measures on vulnerable groups.
Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted the impact of COVID-19 on health, societies, economies and development gains around the globe, welcoming the 15-member Council’s recent adoption of a resolution calling for a global ceasefire amid the pandemic (see Press Release SC/14238 of 1 July). She also underlined the importance of human rights components in 12 of the organ’s peace operations, stressing that such work brings missions closer to the people they serve and helps Governments advance inclusive development, the rule of law and peace.
Pointing out that protecting human rights also prevents future conflicts by addressing the grievances that underpin them, she said COVID-19 has made tackling such drivers of instability even more critical. It is crucial to assess the effectiveness and enforcement of virus containment measures, monitor increases in stigmatization and address the pandemic’s impact on marginalized groups. The importance of the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights cannot be overemphasized, as its “Agenda for Protection” helps ensure that human rights serve as a shared — and effective — basis for the United Nations’ work.
Around the globe, she said, the human rights components of peace operations support good offices functions and help host countries pursue political and peace processes. In Afghanistan, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA)’s reporting on civilian protection helped build the Mission’s credibility as an impartial interlocutor and opened doors to the conflict parties. In the Central African Republic, human rights staff work to counter hate speech and support the country’s innovative Special Criminal Court. Meanwhile, in Iraq, their monitoring efforts contributed to the significant restraint shown by security forces during recent protests.
Human rights staff also assist in strengthening national capacity and building up rule of law institutions, she continued. In Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, United Nations police and human rights staff have worked with national authorities to strengthen the inspector general, in order to better address cases of human rights violations. Such work also underpins the United Nations’ conflict prevention strategy by helping to curb intercommunal violence.
Drawing attention to the Organization’s human rights due diligence policy on support provided to non-United Nations security forces, she noted that the Council is increasingly mandating regional engagements to counter security threats. Alongside the African Union, her office developed a compliance framework comprising a package of prevention, mitigation, response and remedial measures to reinforce the protection of civilians. It has supported the Group of Five (G5) for Sahel joint force — tasked with combating terrorism — since 2018, she said, noting that human rights measures are crucial to inspiring confidence in the communities the force serves.
“There is no better guarantee for prevention than for Member States to meet their human rights responsibilities,” she said. Conversely, unresolved human rights issues and underfinanced implementation of human rights recommendations result in a fragile — and ultimately untenable — peace, as well as prolonged United Nations engagement. In that context, she called for redoubled investment in structures that identify and address grievances “before they fester into violence”, as well as adequate mandate financing and robust political support.
David Shearer, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for South Sudan and Head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), said human rights are one of the four pillars of his Mission’s mandate, but also occupy a crosscutting role across all its work. “We are often looked to to provide a definitive account of human rights issues and to speak out on behalf of others about what has happened, because others can’t or are unable speak out,” he said. He cited South Sudan’s poor human rights record — particularly after the 2013 conflict, which led to more than 2 million people becoming refugees — pointing to instances of sexual violence and the targeting and killing of civilians.
Against that backdrop, the Mission works to achieve sustainable behaviour change in observing human rights, he said. Its approach is grouped into three broad streams. The first is documenting human rights violations and holding perpetrators to account. Spotlighting the establishment of a rapid response team that quickly responds to victims and investigates allegations, he said such work helps violators understand that the Mission is watching, and they will be held to account. “Our reporting is conservative, and it is careful,” he said, underlining the importance of accuracy to building the population’s trust.
In addition, he said, the Mission has published reports on a range of related issues, including threats to freedom of expression in South Sudan and access to health for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. Staff work to spotlight individuals that have carried out particular atrocities, as was the case with a man called Gordon Kong in 2018, who orchestrated a horrific programme of abuse — including mass rapes, hanging women from trees and burning people in their homes — in Unity state. Such individuals must be visibly held to account.
Describing a functional justice system as a hallmark of a functional society, he went on to note that UNMISS supports a system of mobile courts as a first step towards a more sustainable justice system across South Sudan. Those courts are seeing results and helping to end impunity. The Mission, with strong cooperation from the justice system, is also working to strengthen institutions from police to judges. While there is reason to criticize the Government, the Mission must also engage them. It currently has three actions plans in place — with the military, the police and the opposition military, respectively — aimed at creating the conditions to bring about respect for human rights within those forces.
He went on to note that the Mission’s human rights functions are dictated in a memorandum of understanding, which ensures continuity of standards among the peacekeepers who rotate every 12 months. “Our uniformed peacekeepers see and respect the work of the human rights component and assist them with it, and our human rights division has a better understanding of the working of our military components,” he said, also spotlighting the important role being played by women protection advisers and the child protection unit.
Dismas Kitenge Senga, President of the non-governmental organization Groupe LOTUS and Honorary Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights, briefed the Council from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He recalled that the peaceful transfer of power to President Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo in 2019 gave rise to new hope, as well as to an opening of the country’s political space. “But to this day, the behaviour of the security forces is characterized by the practices of the previous Government,” he said.
In State-controlled areas, he said, security and defence forces face unity-of-command challenges, dysfunction, a lack of resources and an inability to effectively defend territory against military forces from neighbouring countries. Describing grave atrocity crimes committed by some armed groups, he said that, in such a fragile context, human rights violations require urgent attention. Citing such challenges as impunity and difficulties in implementing necessary reforms, he described instances of arrests and illegal detentions, torture and inhumane and degrading treatment by the security forces. Around 50 human rights defenders have been arrested since a state of emergency was declared during the pandemic.
He said the fight against impunity and corruption — a priority of President Tshisekedi’s five-year plan — is also impeded by a lack of clear and coherent policy. “The economic and social rights of the population, which are already difficult to put into practice, have been made even more fragile by COVID-19,” he said, noting the downward revision of the national budget as well as infringements on the right to work, access health care and pursue education.
As part of its mandate, he said, the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office — a component of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) — monitors human rights violations committed throughout the country. It also supports partners in Government and civil society as they conduct promotion and protection efforts, while helping to protect human rights defenders and advising on efforts to fight impunity. Despite facing resource challenges and a series of office closures, the Joint Human Rights Office continues to support non-governmental organizations as they seek to bring human rights violators to justice.
Noting that COVID-19 has affected the work of such non-governmental groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he said information collection, training and advocacy have been declining as a result of resource constraints and travel restrictions. MONUSCO’s human rights component continues to provide logistical support, interface with the Government and — most importantly — raise awareness about fundamental human rights in the context of the coronavirus. He also described MONUSCO’s support to him, personally, when his life was threatened because of his human rights work.
Such support from MONUSCO have helped Congolese communities better understand the essential nature of human rights, he continued. Listing several recommendations, he called for more support for the good offices work of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General; increasing the resources and presence of the Joint Human Rights Unit across the country; improving the professionalization of military and police officers through more human rights training; continued follow-up with the Government on protection of civilians; support to victims of human rights violations; and support for local elections and democratic reforms.
As Council members delivered remarks, many supported the existing human rights components of peace operations, with some calling for their universalization among all mandates. Several speakers warned against the inclusion of human rights as a “token add-on” lacking real impact, advocating instead for their integration into force generation, mission planning, management and oversight. Some struck a different tone, voicing concern over the Council’s continued politicization of human rights and demanding that the principle be applied universally and without bias or selectivity.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Minister for Defence of Germany and Council President for July, spoke in her national capacity, noting that the task of universalizing human rights is far from complete and will remain so as long as it continues to be questioned — even within the United Nations. “As a defence minister, let me be very clear — human rights have to be a first concern in peace operations,” she said, stressing that they must never be put aside for the sake of operational effectiveness. The Council has a special obligation, in conjunction with States, to guarantee the protection of human rights in its peace operations. Blue helmets must be trained in human rights even before deployment and serve as role models. In that vein, Germany will make human rights a mandatory element of training it provides to the United Nations. It also plans to hold a high-level conference on peacekeeping, human rights and the protection of civilians.
The representative of France said achieving sustainable peace requires parallel progress on development, security and human rights. Human rights must be an integral part of the strategies spearheaded by Special Representatives or Special Envoys. Underlining the importance of inclusive dialogue among all segments of society, he commended the human rights components of peace operations for their monitoring or “early warning” work, their support to national authorities and their integration into local communities. He also praised their support for victims, noting that France contributes to reparations through the Global Fund for Survivors. Missions should be given the skills, resources and budgets to carry out such crucial work, and they must adhere to their own zero-tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse.
The Dominican Republic’s delegate emphasized that there can be neither peace nor progress in societies where human rights are not protected. Citing the link between human rights, accountability and reconciliation as key to eradicating conflict, she said child and women protection advisers in peace operations play critical roles and must be given the funds and seniority needed to carry out their work. She joined others in spotlighting the Secretary-General’s 2018 Action for Peacekeeping initiative and the Declaration of Shared Commitments arising from it, noting that more than 150 countries have vowed to build on their commitments. She went on to underline the role of training — which must be tailored to specific peace operations — and to stress that human rights principles must prevail amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The representative of Belgium said human rights are not an add-on for United Nations peace missions, but rather core business. In Afghanistan, UNAMA’s human rights component contributed to building confidence between conflict parties and conditions for inclusive intra-Afghan negotiations. Spotlighting the consolidation of human rights components into mandates and resource negotiations – as well as their translation into operational “human rights readiness” for military personnel — he said training blue helmets before and during deployment is essential. The European Union has extensive human rights components in civilian and military missions. Noting that the African Union also integrates human rights, he encouraged the G5 Sahel joint force to strengthen the implementation of the Human Rights Compliance Framework supported by the Office of the High Commissioner.
The representative of the United States, pointing out that COVID-19 has required missions to reprioritize their mandates, expressed support for the human rights divisions, joint protection teams and mixed-gender engagement teams deployed to various peace operations. While some Council members attempt to cut their funding, the United States will continue to advocate for their retention. Welcoming the work of human rights units in South Sudan, Mali and the Central African Republic in particular, she joined other speakers in spotlighting the United Nations Human Rights Due Diligence Policy. She also stressed the need to increase women’s meaningful participation in peacekeeping, noting that they can make peace operations with civilian protection mandates more successful, and said there is still room for greater integration among civilian and military mission components.
Estonia’s delegate underscored the need for cooperation between human rights officers and military and police staff, as well as strong mission leadership. Human rights should be part of the mission management at the highest level, he said, joining other speakers in calling for sufficient, practical predeployment training. In the context of COVID-19, human rights training and knowledge helps missions provide better support to countries in dealing with the pandemic, he added.
South Africa’s representative said the inclusion of human rights elements in mission mandates reflects the Council’s general acceptance of the principle’s relevance to peace and security. However, it has not escaped the organ’s political dynamics and continues to be applied selectively. While some members advocate for human rights components in peace operations, he voiced regret that such enthusiasm is conspicuously absent from other missions, such as the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). “We must not put ourselves on the wrong side of history by allowing our narrow interests to trample over the interest of the majority of world citizens,” he warned, calling on the Council to implement protection of civilian mandates “without fear, favour or prejudice”.
The representative of Viet Nam echoed those points, emphasizing that peace operations must be carried out in line with the basic principles of political impartiality, consent of parties and non-use of force except in self-defence and defence of mandate. Human rights promotion and protection remain primarily the responsibility of host countries. Peace operations should play a supporting role and base their work on accurate, unbiased, balanced and verifiable information. Missions should also pay considerably more attention to the rights of refugees and internally displaced persons, he said, calling on peace operations themselves to strictly observe United Nations strategies related to misconduct and discipline.
China’s representative agreed that peace operations have played an important role in upholding the rights of people in their host countries, including creating the conditions for realizing the right to development. The objective of such missions is to support the political settlement of hotspot issues, and whether to include human rights protection in their mandate depends on the circumstances of each situation. For example, in Mali and South Sudan, human rights issues are not the main drivers of conflict. The human rights components of those respective missions should, therefore, serve — and not divert from — their central tasks. Underlining the need to respect countries’ ownership of human rights mandate implementation, he said peace operations must strictly follow Council resolutions, communicate with Governments and respect countries’ unique circumstances. Peace operations should also support States’ responses to COVID-19 and protect people’s rights to life and health.
The representative of the Russian Federation said that any future reforms of peace operations should have, at their core, respect for the sovereignty of host countries, compliance with the Charter of the United Nations and adherence to the basic principles of peacekeeping. He also underlined the need for neutrality and mandate-oriented standards of conduct, respect for local customs and practices, culture, religion and traditions. Recognizing the importance of human rights, he agreed with other speakers who said that the topic has been highly politicized, putting the trust of the international community at risk. “The Security Council is not a human rights body,” he said, rejecting any attempt to “squeeze the topic” onto its agenda. Even more concerning are attempts to use human rights as an instrument to exert political or military pressure on other countries. The main functions of peace operations are peacekeeping and the promotion of reconciliation; all other tasks — including any human rights components — are auxiliary in nature.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said peace operations provide crucial support to conflict-affected countries as they realign and reconfigure social norms, build new institutions and re-establish State authority. However, she warned against universalizing human rights components in a manner that disregards local cultures and traditions — thereby undermining national peace efforts — and stressed the need to respect a host country’s sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity. She echoed the sentiment that blue helmets themselves must never engage in human rights abuses, recalling that in Haiti acts of sexual exploitation and abuse left behind deep-rooted trauma and a general distrust of the United Nations.
Also participating were the Minister for State of the United Kingdom and the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Indonesia, as well as the representatives of Niger and Tunisia.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.