Menu Close

The critical role of human rights in peace operations

Add to my bookmarks

Share This Article:

Displaced people fleeing from Wad Madani in Sudan’s Jazira state arrive in Gedaref in the country’s east in December. The war between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces has killed 12,190 people, and displaced 5.4 million people inside the country, according to the UN and other organisations, and sent over 1.3 million fleeing abroad. Human rights are experiencing an unprecedented “global retrenchment” in a context of changing geopolitical order and strife, the writers say. – Picture: AFP / December 19, 2023

By Asha Ali and Hafsa Maalim

A new study by researchers from the Effectiveness of Peace Operations Network (EPON), examines the role of human rights work in United Nations (UN) peace. Seventy years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly, human rights are experiencing an unprecedented “global retrenchment” in a context of changing geopolitical order and strife, which has put increased pressure on the UN’s peace and security work.

Over the past 30 years, UN peace operations mandates have increasingly integrated human rights language to address the underlying grievances of conflicts and promote sustained peace. However, recent years have witnessed pushback on human rights language in the mandates of peace operations, primarily related to the Women, Peace and Security agenda and child protection, raising concerns about the future of these critical components.

The study finds that embedding rights-based analysis and objectives more directly into regional strategies would help the UN move more fluidly between national, regional, and international levels.

Reducing violence, fostering peace

The report’s key findings emphasise that human rights efforts within UN peace operations contribute to reducing violence levels and fostering long-term peace. While the impact is not always direct, the study establishes a strong correlation between human rights activities and improved early warning mechanisms, protection of civilians, conflict management, and peacebuilding.

The study recommends specific actions for the UN Security Council, Host Governments, UN Secretariat, and missions. The recommendations to the UN Secretariat and the missions touched on emerging challenges to mission transitions and the centrality of human rights as an early warning mechanism and as a political tool to prevent relapse into full blown conflict.

This study makes reference to the “double transition” effect, where mission transitions occur in the context of major changes in a country, from the establishment of new governments and/or peace processes. In this case, the human rights components play an indispensable role in mission transitions, maintaining a dynamic field presence and early warning function even as other aspects of the mission draw down.

As such, specific human rights benchmarks measuring the protection of political space, reduction of abuses and increase of governance capacities in the areas of rule of law, justice, and policing should remain part of the transition plan.

Case studies find that human rights efforts enable better outcomes of political processes and increase the effectiveness of peace.

The strategic importance of having a strong human rights monitoring and reporting function in such transitions is evidenced in the cases of The United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) and the political crisis in Sudan. In light of this, the EPON study makes a case for the stronger involvement of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in the mission evaluation and planning processes to ensure that the physical presence of human rights capacities is maintained beyond the lifespan of military team sites.

While the study emphasises mainstreaming human rights in mission settings, it also acknowledges the limitations that human rights can place on mission function, mainly when operating in complex and delicate political spaces.

In some cases, missions sideline human rights-focused approaches for fear of risking the delivery of fragile peace processes. However, the study notes that this is, in fact, a false dichotomy. Case studies find that human rights efforts enable better outcomes of political processes and increase the effectiveness of peace.

Leveraging Regional Platforms for Human Rights

The study also found that the application of human rights by missions at the national level is often strained by the imposition of state sovereignty, a distortion of the purpose of the UN Charter. However, in its recommendations to member states, the study calls on member states to lean into the human rights approach to gain positive visibility with donors, providing a platform to leverage the much needed financial and technical support.

In the context where nationally focused missions found it challenging to discuss human rights, the report found that regional strategies and approaches were useful in promoting human rights.

As is the case of the office of the Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, regional platforms are seen to offer an important forum for advancing the human rights agenda. The study finds that embedding rights-based analysis and objectives more directly into regional strategies would help the UN move more fluidly between national, regional, and international levels.

In highly contested elections, the immediate aftermath of coups or moments where authoritarian leaders are limiting political space in the country, it can be more useful for the UN to engage regional actors on issues of rights abuses. Particularly in the African context, the cases examined demonstrate the crucial role that sub-regional organisations can play in engaging on delicate issues when the UN is unable to.

In conclusion, the study provides a balanced perspective between the gains made in advancing the human rights agenda in peace operations in the last thirty years and the gaps that remain. The report also takes stock of the rising pushback on human rights language, yet, drawing from the case study, it clearly infers that there is an implicit need to reinforce the human rights-based approach. The findings clearly show that human rights reporting and analysis are crucial to the learning and adaptation processes of the UN.

In discussions with experts from across various missions, the report underscores that human rights information serves as an important indicator for the changing risk landscape, providing a more accurate reflection of how the local population are experiencing conflicts.

In light of this, the EPON study, suggests that a rights-based approach can add the much-needed texture to the concept of the primacy of politics in peace operations. Describing mission priorities in terms of promoting respect for and protecting human rights helps clarify tasks and objectives for the mission leadership at all levels.

This summary was prepared by Asha Ali of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and Hafsa Maalim of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

The full report is available here

This article was first published by ACCORD