Mainstreaming Human Rights

Interview with Danilo Türk

Dialogue: One of the roles of the UN is to enhance member states’ capacities for early warning, conflict prevention, and long-term peace building. Are there any UN efforts under way to set standards of accountability in the area of conflict prevention that include strong human rights components?

Türk: I do not think that it would be wise to propose additional standards of accountability for prevention purposes only. Conflict prevention should be an additional motivation for insisting on the standards of human rights codified in international law and for sensitizing the international community to violations of existing human rights standards.

The link between human rights and prevention of armed conflict is indirect. Human rights norms and actions were devised not to prevent armed conflicts but because of their inherent value. Early warning of a potential armed conflict could be an indirect effect of human rights reporting in a country. The situation facing ethnic minorities, especially the existence of discrimination, can be a critical indicator of an incipient armed conflict.

There is hope that the existing international and mixed criminal tribunals and the future International Criminal Court (ICC) will have a deterrent effect. The jurisdiction of the ICC will complement the jurisdictions of states. This should provide a strong incentive to states parties to prosecute offenders and thus contribute to prevention of armed conflicts in the future.

Dialogue: What are some of the practical limitations on integrating international human rights norms, standards, and practices into the UN’s preventive and peace-building responses?

Türk: There are practical obstacles to the mainstreaming of human rights into all UN activities. UN activities in the field of human rights are concentrated on norms and procedures and seldom reach all the relevant areas of policy making. Also, these activities are not immune to political selectivity and ideological interpretations.

The UN is sometimes expected to deliver results in situations where norm-based activities simply do not suffice. Post-conflict peace building requires good diagnoses of all the relevant social, political, and practical problems and a realistic program of work if it is to prevent the recurrence of conflict. Concrete tasks such as establishing an independent judiciary or credible media require not only a good understanding of human rights but also technical skills and resources. Very often the former is available while the latter is in short supply.

Dialogue: Should the field of human rights develop its conflict prevention potential more fully and, if so, how might this be done?

Türk: Human rights reporting has an important potential for conflict prevention. The early warning issued by the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Rwanda regarding the situation in that country in 1993/94 and reports by NGOs in the 1980s on the situation in Kosovo prove this. But shortcomings in human rights reporting may have contributed to the failure to prevent the outbreak of armed conflict in Macedonia in 2001. Human rights reports need to deal not only with violations of human rights but also with the social and political context of violations. Reports should make policy recommendations. We need both the picture of what is going wrong and an assessment of how that may affect the overall political situation. Human rights reports should venture into that field of assessment, with the understanding that alternative assessments and recommendations are possible.

Careful monitoring and capacity building would also make UN activities to improve the human rights situation and political stability in host countries more effective. However, it is difficult to establish both types of activity in a single UN mandate. In matters of human rights, host governments naturally prefer technical assistance and advice, and resent monitoring and the ensuing critique.


Dialogue: Isn’t part of the problem also ensuring that human rights reporting reaches the appropriate departments within the UN so that it can be used in a timely manner to assist conflict prevention?

Türk: The problem is not in coordinating the flow of information but in the different competencies of various UN bodies and in the quality of human rights reports. Formally, human rights reports are submitted to the Commission on Human Rights and to the General Assembly. The Security Council is not an addressee, and there has been reluctance within it to formally accept UN human rights reports. This attitude is starting to change. In its Resolution 1366 (2001), the Security Council invited the Secretary-General to inform the Council on potential armed conflicts resulting from, inter alia, human rights violations. If reports are to play a greater role in decision-making on political and security issues, the conclusions and recommendations in the reports and, to a lesser extent, the narrative must pay more attention to the social and political context of human rights violations.

Dialogue: How can prevention be pursued without its being seen as an interventionist doctrine?

Türk: The Charter has placed the UN’s preventive role and its mandate in the field of human rights within the notion of “cooperation.” Cooperation involves dialogue and exchange of views. Dialogue should be detailed and patient but also principled and open-minded. It should include different perspectives on the problems at hand, including the perspectives of NGOs and civil society. The UN Charter also sets out the principle of primacy of sovereignty of member states. In a responsible exercise of sovereignty, states are expected to prevent armed conflict and seek or accept international cooperation when necessary. In his report on prevention of armed conflict, published in June 2001, the secretary-general emphasized states’ responsibility for the prevention of international and internal conflicts. Based on this principle, he explained UN practices and objectives both in long-term, structural prevention and in operational preventive activities. Human rights have their place in both these domains, and cooperation between the UN and the governments of member states is clearly necessary. The Security Council and the General Assembly have received this well, and I expect that unnecessary fears of intervention will dissipate.

Dialogue: How should the field of human rights develop its post-conflict peace-building capacities?

Türk: Human rights field operations as part of a broader post-conflict peace-building effort are a relatively new experience for the UN. No longer just a protection response to emergency human rights situations, field operations increasingly undertake technical cooperation programs aimed at strengthening national human rights capacities or infrastructures. Moreover, human rights components have become more commonplace in complex UN missions of both a peacekeeping and a peacemaking nature, and field operations in these cases are coordinated with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Department of Political Affairs. In each such operation, there is a need to ensure proper integration of the human rights component into the overall project. Sometimes this requires realism: Does one have to push ahead with investigations and prosecution of past atrocities, or does one have to wait for the appropriate moment and prepare the national institutions to play a decisive role? Additionally, projects like the establishment of a credible judicial system or decent media require significant technical skills and resources. Only when such infrastrucure is in place can the right to a fair trial, rights essential to a stable democracy, be exercised fully.

Dialogue: How do you suggest that limitations on UN human rights action, especially in areas of existing or potential conflict, can be overcome?

Türk: There’s one answer: proactive engagement. The High Commissioner on Human Rights and other UN organs must always explore the possibilities for monitoring human rights and taking appropriate cooperative action. There is scope for both human rights diplomacy and human rights advocacy. Proactive engagement is inherent in the idea of the international promotion of human rights. It should be pursued carefully, with due regard for the sovereignty of states and for the needs defined by their governments. Of course success is not always guaranteed, especially in the short run. However, experience shows that wherever such an engagement is pursued in a serious and well-thought-out manner, human rights can make a meaningful contribution to the prevention of armed conflict.

Read More: UN, Human Rights, Human Rights,

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