The UN's main human rights body should play a more prominent role in conflict prevention


The effective implementation of human rights is a major challenge: there is a gap between the Council's activity and the reality on the ground. Former Swiss President Didier Burkhalter outlines some of the opportunities to close this gap and ensure the effective realisation of the human rights of every individual.

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By Didier Burkhalter, Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) and former President of Switzerland

Ten years ago, the United Nations General Assembly took the historic decision to create the Human Rights Council (the Council). This was a milestone for human rights and also for Switzerland, which places human rights at the heart of its political activity. Switzerland hosts the Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). A broad array of institutions and non-governmental organisations active in the field of human rights are based in Geneva. The city serves the international community and individuals all over the world as the world capital of human rights.

Since it was created, the Human Rights Council has achieved remarkable success, as two noteworthy examples demonstrate: First, the Council has established solid mechanisms whose authority is beyond doubt. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR), for example, has become a driving force for advancing human rights. The system of Special Procedures, the eyes and ears of the Council, has been further developed in the last ten years. Second, the Council has proved to be highly responsive to human rights violations and situations that require urgent consideration and action. Furthermore, it tackles new issues resulting from societal change. The Council's successful action has helped to sustainably improve and consolidate the UN’s human rights architecture. But there is a lot of work ahead of us.

The effective implementation of human rights is a major challenge: there is a gap between the Council's activity and the reality on the ground. Although numerous human rights conventions have been adopted and a growing number of States have ratified them, human rights violations remain a widespread reality in our time. We must work together to close this gap and to ensure the effective realisation of the human rights of every individual.

Switzerland has identified three possible ways to increase the Council's impact on the ground:

  • First, the Council must place greater emphasis on monitoring the implementation of its work at the national level. We need to support countries that demonstrate their commitment to human rights, and to hold those that violate them to account.
  • Second, we need to strengthen collaboration with civil society and the private sector, as they play a vital role in ensuring that human rights are respected. Protection for human rights defenders and the participation of civil society in the Council must therefore be reinforced.
  • Third, we believe that the Council can and should play a greater role in the prevention of conflict. Human rights violations are warning signs that are all too often ignored. They frequently pave the way for major tragedies and are always an indicator of potential instability or the escalation of a conflict. It is up to the UN member States to ensure that such indicators are taken seriously and are followed up by adequate measures. We must put the promotion and protection of human rights at the heart of conflict prevention. A strong human rights pillar is needed in order to improve collective security and the well-being of all peoples.

In June of this year, marking the tenth anniversary of the Council, we will launch an appeal with a number of other countries. Our aim is to ensure that the UN’s human rights work, especially the work of the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms, is given optimal consideration in conflict prevention activities. A number of practical steps can be taken to achieve this goal: communication and collaboration between the Human Rights Council in Geneva and the Security Council in New York can be enhanced and optimised; members of the Human Rights Council and the Security Council can systematically ask for the transmission of human rights analyses and for briefings relevant for conflict prevention; and OHCHR’s human rights monitoring and analysis capacities can be expanded, to name just a few.

The Human Rights Council has accomplished a great deal in its first ten years. In the future, we will need a Council and more broadly a human rights system which not only responds to the most pressing human rights challenges, but which also contributes more systematically to conflict prevention, peace, stability and development. Be it in Geneva, New York or in the field, we must invest together in human dignity and in respect for the human rights of every individual. We owe this investment to future generations – the generations the peoples of the UN were determined to save from the scourge of war when they founded the organisation. That is our common task and our common responsibility. 


  • Europe
  • North America
  • United Nations
  • Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
  • Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council
  • Universal Periodic Review
  • Switzerland
  • United States