The Human Rights Council and the Security Council: Time to think about better synergies?


Strengthened interactivity between the Human Rights Council and the Security Council, including by way of tabling and discussing the reports of the Human Rights Council’s Special Procedures in the Security Council, could assist to elevate vital human rights considerations in the discussion and resolution of issues of peace and security, writes Joanna Weschler.


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By Joanna Weschler, Deputy Director of Security Council Report

Strengthened interactivity between the Human Rights Council and the Security Council, including by way of tabling and discussing the reports of the Human Rights Council’s Special Procedures in the Security Council, could assist to elevate vital human rights considerations in the discussion and resolution of issues of peace and security, writes Joanna Weschler.

In the early 2000s, when the idea of creating a new human rights body began taking shape in conversations among concerned Member States, UN officials and civil society members, one of the key elements of the thinking was that human rights could not be addressed effectively in isolation from the world’s other ills. With the nature of conflict having evolved during the last fifteen years of the twentieth century from wars between States to mostly internal conflicts, the need to connect efforts to ensure peace and security with those to address human rights violations became particularly apparent. In nearly all cases, human rights abuses have been among the first warning signs of a looming internal conflict. They have been often among the conflicts’ root causes, and, invariably, they have been a feature of every stage of the conflict as such. It became obvious to many that achieving lasting peace and security would be much more likely if addressing human rights concerns were part of the overall effort.

One of the strongest voices advocating incorporating human rights thinking into the outlook of the world’s top peace and security body, the UN Security Council, was the organisation’s seventh Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. When he took up his post in 1997, while not entirely absent from the Security Council, human rights concerns were highly controversial within that body. From his first year in office, Annan undertook a consistent effort to highlight the need for a holistic approach to peace and security and human rights.

From the late 1960s, when the then Commission on Human Rights (the Commission) begun addressing human rights in specific countries, there had been overlaps between its agenda and that of the Security Council. But the flow of information from the Commission to the Security Council was extremely rare. By the end of the Cold War when numerous civil wars erupted in different parts of the world, the Commission, through its Special Procedures, had an increasingly rich system of fact-finding and producing highly professional reports on specific situations. More often than not, the Commssion had in-depth information and analyses on issues that the Security Council was only just beginning to discuss (Rwanda comes to mind), but there was resistance on the part of some Security Council members to tapping into that knowledge.

When a Special Rapporteur on human rights in the former Yugoslavia was appointed, in a resolution adopted at an emergency Commission session on the Balkans in August 1992, Member States – in a highly creative move – asked the Secretary-General to make all reports of the Special Rapporteur available to the Security Council (as a result the Security Council over the next few years received 23 reports on this situation). Subsequently, the Security Council received reports of the Special Procedures of the Commission with respect to a few other situations.

Progression at the Human Rights Council

The establishment of the Human Rights Council (the Council) in 2006, when Member States overwhelmingly affirmed that ‘peace and security, development and human rights are the pillars of the United Nations system and the foundations for collective security’ and that ‘development, peace and security and human rights are interlinked and mutually reinforcing’, brought hopes that the flow of specialised human rights information would become easier, and an interaction between the world’s top peace and security body and its top human rights body more effective.

The establishment of the Council, with its regular sessions spaced throughout the year, a simplified procedure for holding emergency sessions, and the cycle of periodic reviews of the human rights record of every Member State, dramatically enhanced the UN’s human rights performance. But the interaction between the human rights and the peace and security architectures has surprisingly been less than robust.

Inadequate linking of human rights and peace and security

Resolutions of the Council have only very infrequently asked for its reports to be transmitted to the Security Council, and there has been no regular such transmittal on any of the situations on the agenda of both bodies. There have been no attempts, even informal, at establishing contacts between the two bodies’ presidencies.

There could also be enhanced interaction of the Council’s Special Procedures with the Security Council. The Security Council has never taken full advantage of the very professional reporting of the Special Procedures (which often display a level of frankness otherwise hard to achieve in the UN context). There have only been four occasions when Special Procedures briefed the Security Council formally; only one of them since the establishment of the Human Rights Council. All other briefings occurred under the Arria-formula format (these are generally very informative meetings allowing for substantive interactions, but their limitations include that not all are attended by all Security Council members, and that there is no written record and no outcome). One Human Rights Council mechanism, the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, on the initiative of various elected members of the Security Council, has provided regular briefings since 2012. A few other Special Procedures briefed sporadically. Given the two bodies’ overlapping agendas and the mandate holders’ intimate familiarity with the situation on the ground, the Human Rights Council’s investigators remain a largely underutilised source for the Security Council.

It is hard to explain this state of affairs. Perhaps because the establishment of the Human Rights Council – which by UN standards happened with lightning speed – involved such massive mobilisation and ceaseless advocacy by all human rights actors (States, UN officials and civil society), the success led to something of a collective sigh of relief and a decrease in advocacy efforts.

A lesson that probably should be drawn from the experience of the first decade of the Council is that human rights work is never done, that things do not happen by themselves, and that constant, targeted and strategic advocacy by all actors is indispensable to maximise all resources and effectiveness.

Joanna Weschler is deputy executive director and director of research of Security Council Report. She is also the primary author of Security Council Report’s January 2016 report on the evolving relationship between the Security Council and the Human Rights Council.


  • Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council
  • UN Human Rights Council