The Long Road Ahead: Human Rights, Mass Atrocity Prevention and the United Nations Security Council

By Puri, Hardeep S. | UN Chronicle, February 2017 | Go to article overview

The Long Road Ahead: Human Rights, Mass Atrocity Prevention and the United Nations Security Council


Puri, Hardeep S., UN Chronicle


The fiftieth anniversary of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both adopted in 1966, provides an opportune moment in history to review the progress on the issue of human rights promotion and examine the Security Council's overall effectiveness in protecting human rights.

Syria: A Deepening Crisis

This anniversary coincides with a critical point in Security Council history. The situation in Syria is calling into question the Council's willingness and capacity to halt mass atrocities, let alone its ability to prevent them. It takes a single mass atrocity to overshadow all preceding prevention efforts. The genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica in 1994 and 1995, respectively, provide eloquent testimony to this. Amidst ongoing competition between the production of body bags and refugees in Syria, the incessant mass atrocities that have plagued the country for the past five years constitute the severest indictment of the Council's effectiveness. The situation would appear, at the very least, to call for an outlawing of the use of the veto in cases of mass atrocities with a view to redeeming, to the limited extent possible, its credibility and effectiveness in mass atrocity prevention.

1945 Was a Different World

Institutions designed by people invariably reflect the preeminent preoccupation of their time. The United Nations was created by minds exhausted by the scourge of war. They recognized in unison the absolute imperative of saving succeeding generations from the same calamities they had endured twice in their lifetimes. With prevention of a third world war at the forefront of the Organization's design, the three pillars of the United Nations--peace and security, development, and human rights--received unequal treatment. The provisions laid out for peace and security far outweighed the considerations for development and human rights. Interstate conflicts were regarded as the single greatest threat to international peace and security, while issues of development and human rights were considered an almost exclusively domestic preserve.

At San Francisco in 1945, delegates were faced with the ambitious task of reimagining an organization with the likeness of the League of Nations but without its debilitating shortcomings. The Charter of the United Nations was signed on 26 June 1945. Delegates placed the Security Council, one of the six principal organs, at the top of the hierarchy within the Organization, after the General Assembly, by providing for some of the Council's decisions to be both binding and to take precedence over all other international agreements. Since the Council predated the adoption of the two Covenants and because threats to international peace and security were considered strictly state-centric, the issue of human rights was largely absent from the Council's radar at its inception.

The Charter delegated the promotion of and respect for human rights to the Economic and Social Council, which promptly created in 1946 the Commission on Human Rights, with its annual meetings in Geneva, a relocation that physically distanced human rights from the New York-based Security Council. The Commission initially concerned itself with establishing international human rights norms and developed the International Bill of Human Rights, which remains the primary reference for human rights norms. The Commission's non-context-specific approach to human rights was soon challenged, as an onslaught of human rights violations in newly independent States forced the Commission to undertake country-specific discussions. With the recognition that human rights violations could serve as an early warning sign for rising conflicts, the Commission began deploying special rapporteurs to investigate human rights conditions; their findings would be reported to the Third Committee of the General Assembly in New York, inching the issue of human rights closer to the Security Council. …

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