Book Review: UN Security Council in the age of human rights

Book Review: UN Security Council in the age of human rights

Jared Genser and Bruno Stagno Ugarte (eds), The United Nations Security Council in the Age of Human Rights, Cambridge University Press, 2014 reviewed by the HRLC’s Emily Howie

During her first speech to the United Nations Security Council in September 2013, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, spoke in favour of the Council’s resolution to regulate the sale of small arms and light weapons to conflict zones.  In doing so, she emphasized the importance of the Security Council’s role in protecting human rights. The Minister said: “the resolution demonstrates the fundamental importance this Council places on protecting civilians, and for full respect for international humanitarian law and human rights.”

Although the Minister’s support for the Council’s position on human rights was welcome, her statement overlooked the complexities inherent in the Security Council’s ability and willingness to engage with human rights crises and its inconsistent, and at times poor, track record in providing protection.

In a new book The United Nations Security Council in the Age of Human Rights, edited by Jared Genser and Bruno Stagno Ugarte, the Security Council’s mandate and track record for protecting human rights is explored and critiqued in great detail.

The book covers the evolution of the Security Council’s work on human rights, the legal and political constraints in which it operates and the institutional progress that has nonetheless been made towards protecting human rights. 

The book provides a realistic view of the limits of the Council’s ability to effect change on the ground. However, it also considers in depth some of the notorious instances where the Council failed to act to prevent mass atrocities. Chapters on Rwanda, the Former Yugoslavia and Syria are among the eight case studies in the book. There are also critiques of the Security Council’s thematic work. Janet Benschoof’s chapter on the Council’s Women, Peace and Security agenda is extremely critical of the failure of the Security Council to properly use all the tools at its disposal to stop sexual violence in conflict.

The strength of the book is in the breadth of experience and perspectives provided by its contributors – academics, practitioners, NGO advocates, former senior UN diplomats and the leaders of countries that experienced human rights crises first hand (such as Jose Ramos Horta’s chapter discussing Timor-Leste). The chapters provide legal and political analysis, personal reflection and strong critiques of how the Security Council has at times failed and could do things better.

Genser and Ugarte’s book is a welcome addition to the literature that sheds some light on the inner-workings of the Security Council. It can also provide some guidance on how the Council might become a place that acts consistently with its belief in the fundamental importance of human rights.