International Governance

Human Rights and the UN Security Council

By Ingrid Wuerth
Wednesday, May 31, 2017, 8:30 AM

Human rights issues are vitally important, but that does not mean that the United Nations Security Council should address them.

António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, recently called for the U.N. Security Council to increase its human rights work, including action on social and economic rights, on mass atrocities, and as part of peacekeeping missions.  The benefits of U.N. Security Council engagement with human rights are often assumed or supported with a quick reference to the link between human rights and peace (see statements by the Italy, Japan, the United States and other countries in response to Guterres’ remarks). Under the U.N. system, the Security Council has the primary responsibility for the maintenance international peace and security.

As explored in more detail here,  however, the relationship between human rights violations and international peace is complicated.  For example, the well-known work on the “democratic peace” (a recent example is here) shows a link between certain measures of democracy and interstate peace.  And although there is overlap between “democracy” as measured in this literature and “human rights” as they are generally understood, the latter is a far more expansive category than the former.  In addition, at least one study of the relationship between human rights and peace shows that there is a human rights peace – but also an “abusers” peace.  Further complicating the picture, there is also a well-documented correlation between territorial disputes and militarized interstate conflict: a “territorial peace.”  Thus, reducing conflict over territory is another plausible way for the Security Council to safeguard international peace and security, and it may at times be at odds with efforts to promote human rights.  Bolivia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Senegal, all current members of the Security Council, have questioned the relationship between human rights and international peace and security.  The empirical work suggests that these questions are valid, even if politically motivated.  

That leads to a potential cost of human rights work by the Security Council.  Secretary-General Guterres noted that human rights are often politicized.  Indeed, much of U.N.’s human rights work is perceived as politically motivated, in whole or in part, as discussed by Rosa Freedman here.   One problem with politicization is that human rights violations in some countries go unaddressed.  Another is that politicization may impede the work of the United Nations as whole.  Consider this evaluation (by the European Council on Foreign Relations) of the General Assembly’s response to Russian annexation of Crimea:

The large number of abstentions in the U.N. General Assembly vote shows that many countries see this as a struggle between power blocs rather than as a fundamental question of international order and do not accept the West's self-identification as the guardian of liberal order. The “Rest”—that is, non-Western countries—have found some of the actions cited by Putin troubling and do not separate their views of Western-backed liberal order from their conviction that the West enjoys an unjustified position of privilege in the international system.

General Assembly voting is generally divided along the West/non-West divide; voting on human rights-related resolutions contributes substantially to that divide, as established in a recent study.  That human-rights related voting is polarized does not, of course, prove that the Security Council or the General Assembly would be less polarized on other issues if they did not address human rights, but neither should that possibility be dismissed out of hand.  

Other potential costs of human rights work include diminished credibility of the Security Council, both because its human rights work is politicized and because human rights violations go largely unaddressed around the world.  As Sweden noted in response to the Secretary-General’s remarks, lack of action on human rights undermines the Council’s legitimacy.  Broader mandates can also lead the less effective work overall:  the expansion of peacekeeping objectives, partly to include human rights, appears to have made some peacekeeping more contested and less effective, as described in a new book Taking Sides in Peacekeeping by Emily Rhoads.   There are various ways to address these problems. Perhaps more human rights work by the Security Council is the solution, not less, especially if it is possible to do that work in an effective way that is not perceived as politically-motivated.   At a minimum, however, human rights work by the Security Council has risks and downsides. Proponents would do well to acknowledge and address them.