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“Protecting human rights: the role of the UN Security Council”

Institute of International and European Affairs

Keynote Speech by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet

Dublin, 5 May 2021

Ambassador Mary Whelan,

I am pleased to be part of this important discussion.

The international community faces an alarming number of situations, featuring acts that shock the global conscience.

It is imperative that countries publicly reaffirm their commitment human rights and take concrete steps to effectively implement conflict prevention and response.

Only a bolder and more determined approach by all multilateral institutions can meet today’s severe protection challenges. That, of course, has to include the Security Council.

Although it is the primary responsibility of the Human Rights Council, promoting and protecting human rights is one of the best ways for the Security Council to achieve its mandate of maintaining international peace and security.

COVID-19’s continued trail of destruction threatens both development and peace and security, as it creates or amplifies grievances and tensions. And the Security Council has recognised the particularly devastating impact of the pandemic on countries affected by conflict and humanitarian crises.

My Office has issued much material on various human rights dimensions of the crisis – including detailed COVID-19 guidance on civic space, detention, indigenous peoples, migrants, minorities, women, racial discrimination, LGBTI people, older people, people with disabilities business and human rights, access to vaccines and states of emergency.

OHCHR’s 92 field presences worldwide have supported Member States, civil society and national human rights institutions in implementing the guidance provided by the human rights system. The core message has been that to be effective, response and recovery efforts must be grounded in human rights.

The Secretary-General’s Call to Action reflects his deep conviction that human rights underpin everything that the UN does, and is the responsibility of each and every UN actor.

Its transformative vision pursues real impact for people on the ground, drawing on the respective expertise of different field mission components. The Call specifically identifies the importance of human rights analysis and information to the Security Council on current and potential human rights crises.

Ultimately, in increasingly complex environments, the protection and promotion of all human rights bind the UN system together around a common approach to crisis, from prevention to recovery and accountability.

As a member of the Security Council, Ireland helps to shape the mandates under which UN peace operations serve. The country has shown its commitment to placing human rights and gender equality at the heart of all missions.

Ireland has not only its own experience of conflict, but also a longstanding and proud record of continuous service in UN peace operations. I trust the country will remain a key ally of my Office in the Council, in areas ranging from accountability for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law to conflict-related sexual violence, protecting civic space and human rights defenders. We are look forward to continuing our cooperation.

Dear colleagues,

Allow me to highlight three areas in which the Security Council plays a critical role in protecting human rights worldwide.

First, when human rights violations amount to threats to international peace and security, it is the role of the Security Council to assume the leadership given by its mandate, and act swiftly.

One of the ways in which the Council has done so was by mandating peace operations to protect human rights.

Integrated human rights components perform a central and unique role in efforts to monitor and report violations and abuses, advocate for remedies, and strengthen institutions, with forward looking activities. They are also critical to protecting civilians from violence by undertaking preventive and deterrence measures.

My Office is ready to provide the Security Council with relevant human rights information that the body needs, to take timely and fully informed decisions towards its mandate to maintain international peace and security.

Furthermore, we engage with Security Council members in order to integrate human rights to the UN peace and security agenda. We currently provide daily support to 11 UN peace operations and special political missions including in strategic planning, policy and guidance development, such as the Human Rights Due Diligence Policy, as well as operations management and budgeting.

With the strong backing of the Security Council, my Office is engaging with regional partners to enhance international human rights and humanitarian law compliance by national, regional and international security forces. Our work also aims for the protection of civilians to be put at the heart of military efforts to combat terrorism.

In the Sahel, we support the G5 Sahel Joint Force to operationalize a Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Compliance Framework. The objective is to help the Force prevent, mitigate and address possible violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law during its operations.

As part of the UN-AU Partnership on Peace and Security, my Office is also supporting the African Union’s efforts to ensure that all civilian, police and military personnel serving in AU’s Peace Support Operations to uphold the highest standards of conduct, behavior, integrity and accountability in the implementation of their mandate.

Our 2021 priorities in peace operations include supporting the deployment of the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan, UNITAMS, and upholding human rights in Afghan peace talks.

Other important efforts will be promoting human rights as a driving force for Libya’s political process and ceasefire implementation; and ensuring continuity of UN human rights engagement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo throughout the drawdown of the UN Mission, MONUSCO.

Last year, my Office released a study on the contribution of human rights components to the implementation of mandates of United Nations field missions.

Through concrete examples in several countries, the study demonstrates how the work of these components improves the effectiveness of UN field missions. Their efforts include the support to the national police in Haiti and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; to a reform of the security sector in Somalia; and to reconciliation efforts in Iraq, Kosovo and Libya.

The study also highlights how important the components are in addressing new challenges, as field missions adapt to a changing world. Central to all these findings is how human rights have become integral to the strategic objectives of field missions, acting as a force enabler across the mission’s mandate.


Another fundamental role of the Council is to promote and support justice and accountability for atrocity crimes and other serious violations of human rights. This is particularly the case in contexts marked by deep-rooted impunity.

These efforts can take various forms. From the referral of a situation to the International Criminal Court, as was the case with Darfur and Libya; to the creation of specific international tribunals, as for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda; to mandating UN peace operations to support national authorities in their fight against impunity. That can be done through the design and implementation of accountability and broader transitional justice mechanisms, as well as reform measures to establish effective and accountable security and other institutions.

The Security Council has also set up Commission of Inquiries or requested the UN Secretary-General to investigate allegations of gross human rights violations, for example in the Central African Republic, Darfur and the DRC. The reports of such thorough investigations help lay the groundwork for further Security Council action and facilitate the fight against impunity.

These investigations invariably find that structural impunity is a root cause and contributor to cycles of violence and severe human rights abuse. They emphasize how justice and accountability are critical to the resolution of conflict -- a necessity to be vigorously pursued in our collective best interest.

Indeed, in creating investigative commissions and ad hoc international criminal tribunals, referring situations to the International Criminal Court, and supporting domestic and hybrid justice mechanisms, the Security Council has recognized the role of justice and accountability in addressing threats to international peace and security. Through these measures, the Security Council has strengthened international law itself, contributing to its understanding as the bedrock for friendly, peaceful and respectful relations among States and between communities. It has also catalysed the development of international criminal law into a cornerstone of our international legal system.

In its resolutions, the Security Council has “stressed the importance of accountability in preventing future conflicts, avoiding the recurrence of serious violations of international law and enabling sustainable peace, justice, truth and reconciliation”. It has also specifically and rightfully emphasized that a comprehensive approach to transitional justice is a key component to sustain peace.

These pronouncements of principle give me hope that disagreements within the Council regarding the question of accountability for serious crimes in specific country contexts, such as Syria and Myanmar, can eventually be overcome.

Just last year, in February 2020, the Security Council held its first-ever thematic debate on transitional justice. In my briefing to the Council at the occasion, I recognized the complexity of proving justice for victims and accountability for perpetrators of serious crimes under international law.

We know that constructing a path towards sustainable peace and reconciliation, through trust and understanding between former enemies, is a difficult challenge. Transitional justice can also not be imposed from outside. Locally-led and locally-appropriate efforts have the best chances of success. Having said that, the international community, and the Council in particular, must assist States in these complex processes. Assistance can mean sharing experiences, mandating international support, and encouraging the implementation of genuinely comprehensive approaches.

Situations that come before the Security Council are necessarily complex. There are no quick fixes. Discussions on how societies can embark on the long path towards justice are both legitimate and desirable – as long as the need for accountability and the urgency of justice for victims are never questioned. Differing views on processes should not lead to paralysis and inaction.

It is crucial to give societies a chance to choose their own path. However, where domestic authorities fail on victims and survivors, and where justice for the most serious crimes under international law cannot be achieved locally, the international community must assume its responsibility.

As many societies learned the hard way, a culture of impunity -- where perpetrators are emboldened, victims silenced, and grievances nurtured – plants the seeds of renewed instability and violence. And I say this from my own experience, as a victim, a refugee, a former head of State, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Dear friends,

Lastly, while they are indeed essential, accountability actions are not a substitute for a fundamental principle: the best form of protection is prevention.

This has been emphasized in the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights as a system wide responsibility of the UN.

The Agenda for Protection, which is being developed this year, is of particular importance. It aims to articulate a common human rights grounded UN vision and operational concept for prevention and protection.

The linkages between human rights, development and peace have been reaffirmed in different UN resolutions, including the 2016 and 2020 resolutions of the General Assembly and Security Council on sustaining peace, and Human Rights Council (HRC) resolutions 38/18 and 45/31 on its contribution to the prevention of human rights violations.

It is crucial that human rights information and analysis inform the work of the Security Council, the General Assembly and the Peacebuilding Commission in addressing current and potential crises and conflicts. That is also the case for the recommendations of the human rights mechanisms. Human rights should be systemically integrated into existing mechanisms for collective UN analysis and decision-making, and must reach the competent bodies in a timely fashion.

Member States have a key role to play in ensuring a better flow of human rights information from the Geneva mechanisms to New York. The 71 countries that signed up to the Swiss-initiated “Appeal of 13 June 2016” aimed to put human rights at the heart of conflict prevention by ensuring better links between the Human Rights Council and the Security Council, among other bodies.

The Security Council is supposed to have the primary role on conflict prevention. Political sensitivities, however, often mean that it can be difficult for the Council to discuss situations of concern until they have reached such a point that prevention is virtually no longer possible.

Information generated by the human rights mechanisms and by my Office could be proven helpful. It that sense, it would be worth revising the 2016 initiative, launched by New Zealand, to create a safe informal space to discuss situations not on Council’s Agenda based on concrete factual information and analysis from the Secretariat.

Which leads me to the importance of participation from civil society actors, who bring direct knowledge of human rights and humanitarian challenges when addressing the Security Council.

Resolution 2242, from 2015, has led to growing numbers of briefings from civil society representatives. This cooperation, however, has also led to reports of reprisals against briefers, including threats and harassment, surveillance, and physical attacks. My Office has initiated a project to address this issue and we welcome the increasing attention paid by some Council members.


From accountability, to reconciliation to prevention, there are inspiring examples from our colleagues in field supporting UN Missions.

In the Central African Republic, the human rights component of MINUSCA advised on the development of a draft transitional justice law and provided documentation on human rights violations and possible breaches of international humanitarian law by parties to the conflict.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, public reporting by the human rights component of MONUSCO informed the mission’s response to inter-ethnic tensions in Ituri province. It supported local reconciliation efforts by Congolese authorities and the investigation and prosecution of those responsible.

In Libya, as a new political process was launched in 2020 and the ceasefire began to take hold, the Security Council seized the opportunity to add the protection of women and children to UNSMIL’s mandate.

In Mali, the human rights component of MINUSMA and its partners continue trainings on human rights and the rule of law in efforts to combat terrorism. They have conducted capacity-building sessions for representatives of civil society, defense and security forces, the Bar Association, the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court.

In South Sudan, the human rights component of UNMISS has developed a data-driven tool that enables it to identify real-time critical hotspots and incidents requiring further investigation. It also contributes to assessing the impact of force patrols on the protection of civilians.

Furthermore, human rights are also at the core of effective peacebuilding, and, therefore, an important benchmark to inform the transition and drawdown of peace operations.

My Office is uniquely positioned to accompany these situations. UN policy allows for our mandate to both focus on the most serious violations linked to the root causes of conflict and instability, and to continue providing support following the closure of a mission.


Human rights gaps -- from discrimination to poverty to lack of access to social protection and basic services -- threaten social cohesion and are root causes of unrest and conflict.

In that sense, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in already vulnerable populations is extremely worrying. The pandemic has derailed progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and is producing even greater levels of inequalities worldwide. Among all challenges, these conditions also create an enabling environment for terrorism to take root.

Advancing the SDGs and recovering better from this crisis, into a more equitable and sustainable world, will be critical to rebuild social cohesion and ensure the benefits of peace and development reach everyone.

That will require bridging the three pillars of the UN: peace and security; sustainable development and human rights.

At a time of multi-dimensional global and regional crisis, we need redoubled investment in rules-based international structures that serve the common good by identifying and addressing grievances before they fester into violence.

Unresolved human rights issues result in a fragile, ultimately untenable, peace. They have also intensified the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, leading us to where we are now.

Sustainable recovery, one that leads to more inclusive, just, resilient and ultimately better societies, can only be achieved with two major elements: by protecting human rights and through international cooperation.

That is exactly the same case for global peace.

Thank you.