Issue 12 - Article 2

Integrating Human Rights in all Sectors of Field Work

November 1, 1998
Karen Kenny, International Human Rights Trust, Ireland

The potential inherent in the UN Secretary-General’s commitment to integrate human rights throughout the activities of the Organisation is such that it should change the way all field operators work: whether relief or development agency, police, military or human rights ‘specialists’. In addition, it should revolutionise the way we work together.

Human rights and conflict

There has long been theoretical recognition of the link between human rights violations and peace. Here, we speak not only of civil and political rights but those economic, social and cultural rights whose denial through structural injustice and discrimination lie at the root of conflict. ‘Today’s human rights violations are tomorrow’s conflicts’. Left unaddressed, human rights violations contribute to conflict escalation, making peace, and ultimately reconciliation, infinitely more difficult to achieve. Peace without justice is indeed a contradiction in terms.

The UN Charter 50 years ago

Understanding the link between human rights and conflict sheds new light on Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations. Not only is to ‘promote and encourage respect for human rights’ an express purpose of the Organisation – it is also at the heart of the other aims, especially that of maintaining international peace and security. The latter is increasingly understood to mean human security and not merely state security. From the outset, the UN has had the legal mandate from its member states in Article 1 of the Charter to integrate the promotion of human rights in all its activities.

Human rights and peace-support operations

In fact, human rights work is inherent in all aspects of peace-support operations, although hitherto it has rarely been understood as such. By definition, the UN’s military, police and political personnel aim to provide freedom from fear – while those UN and NGO personnel who provide relief and rehabilitation support aim at freedom from want. In reality, both aims are common to all peace-support actors though they use different methods to achieve them when a host state is unwilling or unable to do so alone.

In the early 1990s, the link between human rights and conflict was openly applied to a UN peace-support operation for the first time in El Salvador (ONUSAL). It placed civilian human rights officers on the ground six months before there was a cease-fire and before uniformed UN contingents (military or civilian police) arrived to verify compliance with the peace agreements.

Several other ‘human rights operations’, run from the UN headquarters in New York, followed as a specific element of peace-support operations: Haiti (MICIVIH, a joint operation with the Organisation for American States), Cambodia (UNTAC), Croatia (UNTAES) and Guatemala (MINUGUA) are examples of these.

Meanwhile a new post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was created by the General Assembly, with the first incumbent taking up that post just as Rwanda imploded into genocide. The new office of this High Commissioner in Geneva has established human rights operations in addition to those run by the UN Departments of Political Affairs and Peacekeeping Operations. By 1999 there are expected to be 22 such Geneva-UN human rights field ‘presences’ around the world, of varying size and mandate.

Just as in the early days of ‘peace-keeping’ itself, the first experiences have been ad hoc and reactive with, even today, minimal learning from one to another. As a result there has frequently been a rigid compartmentalisation among the ‘disciplines’: military, police, humanitarian aid, development aid and classical human rights ‘specialists’. They have each been weakened due to the lack of a unifying underlying concept the only real source for which is international law and principle.

Integrating human rights in all UN activities

Fifty years on, Kofi Annan’s proposal in his Programme of Reform to integrate human rights in the work of the UN merely makes an official policy of fulfilling the promise of the Charter. Following through on this proposal, the Secretary-General established Executive Committees composed of top UN management, covering four of the five sectors in which the UN is active: peace and security, humanitarian affairs, economic and social affairs and development co-operation. These Committees can be likened to a government’s cabinet which meets to assist the Secretary-General. There is no human rights Executive Committee per se because human rights has been designated as an issue which underpins all the UN’s activities and must be integrated into its work in every sector. Thus the now second High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, is represented on each of the UN’s four Committees when they meet. These developments have the potential to change the way each of us works across the spectrum of field activities.

Integrating human rights in practice

The commitment to integrate human rights is first of all a reminder that our own behaviour is governed by international legal obligations. The Secretary-General should ensure that where there are allegations such as torture or unlawful detention made against UN personnel, that there are meaningful channels for complaints to be heard, to be promptly and impartially investigated and to ensure that they are prosecuted and punished appropriately at the national or international level.

Secondly, the field ‘presences’ under the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights do not yet fully reflect the indivisibility of the full spectrum of rights (civil and political, social, economic and cultural), and particularly the human rights of women. All UN member states reaffirmed by consensus at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 that all human rights are indivisible and inter-dependent. Increased efforts are needed to reflect this in field work, and to move beyond the old Cold War approaches in which the Western block inappropriately prioritised civil and political rights and the Eastern block social and economic rights. There is a need for two-way integration of human rights and development thinking.

Thirdly, integrating human rights in all our activities means that not only those labelled ‘human rights specialists’ have responsibility for human rights tasks. It also means that integrating human rights applies to our work in all places at all times, regardless of our immediate mandate which authorises us to deploy. This is because the root of authority for integrating human rights is not the Secretary-General’s report or a ‘new’ UN policy. The obligation flows from the UN Charter and from international human rights law.

Integrating human rights in all our field work poses many tensions and dilemmas: for the military commander, who under pressure to get a convoy through, can undermine the protection of international law by making compromises; for the UN negotiator who needs to relate a cease-fire to ‘peace’, for the aid worker providing food to displaced populations that is also being diverted to feed combatants. But the questions have to be asked. Because each of us, while doing our respective jobs, should be consciously part of the common human rights aim. The example of the failed Arusha Agreement regarding Rwanda signed in 1993 illustrates all too clearly that the UN negotiators should ensure that human rights concerns are at the heart of peace processes that the UN is involved in brokering, mediating, facilitating or verifying. Yet is difficult to apply lessons that should have been learned. Once again, over Kosovo, negotiations have ignored the human rights causes of what is again mis-presented as a ‘humanitarian aid crisis’. This time it is the OSCE military observers who are deployed in a mission which effectively misses the point.

Learning to integrate human rights

Integrating human rights will require all of us to examine our mandates and doctrines, and our ways of operating. As organisations we will need to recognise that we all have the same human rights aim and that we need unity of effort to achieve it. We will have to learn each other’s professional languages and breakdown stereotypes through common training. We will have to recognise each other’s professionalism and ensure our efforts are mutually re-enforcing through an efficient but well co-ordinated division of labour.

We will also have to review how we assess, analyse and describe a crisis by applying the link between human rights and conflict, and by asking why a crisis is occurring? We will need to apply a rights-based approach to the programme cycle, and question the design of our interventions, what we do, how and with whom we do it, for how long and why, from a rights-perspective. And we will need to ensure that our work is informed by, and uses the available human rights framework and its tools (ranging from the UN Treaty Bodies, to Special Rapporteurs and regional mechanisms, to the vital work of local and international NGOs) to the maximum.

Perhaps most fundamentally, both as individual organisations and collectively, we will have to re-examine how we measure ‘success’. The question is the same now for all our work, whether military, aid or human rights ‘specialist’: Have we harnessed our energies and pooled our skills with the host society and with each other, toward a sustainable improvement in the human rights situation?


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