In December 2013, the UN Secretary General launched a new Human Rights initiative called “Rights Up Front”. Primarily a coordination tool for the UN Secretariat, the plan outlines six actions that can help the UN system meet its responsibilities regarding human rights:
Action 1: Integrating human rights into the lifeblood of staff, so that they understand what the UN’s mandates and commitments to human rights mean for their Department, Agency, Fund or Program and for them personally.
Action 2: Providing Member States with candid information with respect to peoples at risk of, or subject to, serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law.
Action 3: Ensuring coherent strategies of action on the ground and leveraging the UN System’s capacities in a concerted manner.
Action 4: Adopting at Headquarters a “One-UN approach” to facilitate early coordinated action.
Action 5: Achieving, through better analysis, greater impact in the UN’s human rights protection work.
Action 6: Supporting all these activities through an improved system of information management on serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law.
The catalyst of Rights Up Front was the Petrie Report of 2012, an independent review panel report commissioned by the Secretary General and written by Charles Petrie, which assessed the UN’s response to the final months of the 2009 war in Sri Lanka. The report was extraordinarily critical of the UN, characterizing its actions as a “systematic failure.” It recommended “a comprehensive review of action by the United Nations system during the war in Sri Lanka and the aftermath, regarding the implementation of its humanitarian and protection mandates.”
To his credit, the Secretary General Ban Ki Moon took this charge seriously. The Rights up Front plan represents the end product of internal assessment and reflection. While it is too early to give a definitive assessment of the plan’s potential, some features are worthy of comment now. The plan is noteworthy in identifying the protection of human rights as a core purpose of the United Nations, consistent with the UN Charter. It also creates a human rights plan for the UN Secretariat in situations where there is no peacekeeping mission. This is an important development: the plan recognizes the failure of early-warning systems that contributed to the Rwandan genocide and the Srebenica massacre. Moreover, Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson, in presenting the report, indicated that systematic human rights violations have often been a precursor to mass atrocities, and that the challenges facing the UN in Sri Lanka were not new.
Although the action plan refers to UN responsibilities (a term with legal connotations), the main responsibility it addresses lies with the Secretariat. Clearly the plan would have been stronger had it staked out a legal responsibility for the UN. When the Secretary General presented the plan he emphasized the UN’s political and moral obligations, but not its legal responsibilities. Compare, for example, the UN’s position on humanitarian law, and its guidelines for UN troops, which state that they must respect and observe the rules of international humanitarian law or face prosecution.
In addition, while emphasizing the Secretariat’s coordinating role, conspicuously absent from the Plan are references to the responsibility of important organs like the Security Council and the General Assembly. Because the plan is so heavily focused on the Secretariat, Rights Up Front appears to have little to no role in situations where the Security Council or the General Assembly are engaged. Take the current humanitarian crisis in Syria. Here, the Secretariat’s role is limited because the situation has been escalated to the Security Council, the organ with primary responsibility for threats to international peace and security. Due to the Council’s involvement, the Secretariat’s role limited. The potential impact of the Rights up Front plan does not, therefore, overcome cases of Council deadlock despite the evidence of massive human rights abuses.
Another interesting silence in the Rights Up Front plan is its relationship with the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). There are clear parallels between the two doctrines with regards to the duty to prevent human rights abuses. Pillar 2 of R2P, for example, states that the international community has a duty to assist states in meeting these obligations. Rights up Front could be a way to implement Pillar 2. Nonetheless, there is no explicit acknowledgement of this overlap, or explanation of how these doctrines work together.
In the final analysis this Plan represents an important step forward for human rights at the UN. If Rights Up Front is systematically integrated into the Secretariat’s work, and becomes a basis for auditing and review, it may succeed in making human rights a much more central aspect of the UN’s work. Nonetheless, its limited scope, due to its focus on the Secretariat and its avoidance of legal obligations, mean that whether it is capable of delivering real world impact remains to be seen.