Failing to Protect: The UN and the Politicisation of Human Rights


On 17th March 2008, I witnessed Mr Gibreil Hamid, a refugee from Darfur, addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council. Mr Hamid’s statement to the Council was brief. He mentioned three incidents within a conflict that had already claimed 200,000 lives and displaced two million people. Mr Hamid’s hands remained steady as he talked, but his eyes flickered nervously as he addressed people who were supposed to hold power to end such atrocities. Concisely and precisely, he told the Council how a report delivered earlier in the day demonstrated that ‘the Government of Sudan is violating human rights and international humanitarian law, with physical assaults, abductions and rape.’

He described how government forces rounded up and killed 48 civilians praying in a mosque in Muhajiriya; how, after government planes had dropped bombs on Habila, those same soldiers entered the village to steal animals, shoot inhabitants and set fire to the houses. He went on to recount that in West Darfur armed men had attacked a group of ten women and girls. A sixteen-year-old girl from the group had been gang raped, and at least three other women were whipped and beaten with axes. Police and other soldiers refused to intervene.

Nestled in the heart of the UN’s compound in Geneva, the Human Rights Council and its adjoining meeting rooms span three floors of a rather drab-looking building tucked away towards the back-end of the UN compound. The Serpentine Bar, next to the Council Chamber, allows delegates to sip their lattes while looking out across a stunning view of Lake Geneva. Government delegates, human rights activists and UN staff mill around the building during Council sessions. Many wander in and out of the Chamber itself, even when victims who may have travelled halfway across the world are delivering statements or entering into dialogues.

The meeting rooms around the Chamber are filled with formal meetings, bringing together government delegates, regional groups and political blocs, and with informal meetings organised by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The atmosphere is relaxed, particularly amongst state representatives, with much of the ‘real’work being done behind the scenes prior to the Council’s official session. Diplomats and their teams keep to themselves, although the Serpentine Bar and the outdoor smoking areas are places where everyone intermingles. Even in those areas, however, the hierarchies remain obvious. The dress codes vary according to the individual’s role. The more expensive the clothes, the more likely it is that the delegate holds significant power. But power does not necessarily equate to knowledge or understanding of human rights. Indeed, the opposite often is true. The men and women holding power tend not to be based in Geneva, or if they are they tend not to attend Council sessions other than on days designated for top-level delegates. On the High Level Segment days, when ambassadors and other key state government officials attend the Council’s session, the clothes and briefcases in and around the Council signify money and importance. All too often, that is a signal that the individual has flown in for the occasion; knows little about human rights; and has required in-depth briefings from his or her human rights team the previous evening.

While Mr Hamid portrayed these events, delegates within the Council continued their conversations. People wandered around the Chamber, talking on mobile phones, rustling papers, or gathering up their belongings. The webcast of his statement shows people walking into and out of the row directly behind the speaker; the hum of voices accompanies Mr Hamid’s words.

This brave man, who had survived unspeakable atrocities, had made the long journey from Africa to Geneva to tell his story, to speak of the suffering of his people, to ‘tell the truth of what is happening’ in Darfur. Almost incredibly, his words were ignored by the very people in whom he had put his faith and hope. Government delegates, for whom human rights violations exist in numbers, in theory, in the abstract, simply ignored the man standing before them who had witnessed those horrors with his own eyes and whose words begged the world to stop the suffering of his people.

Mr Hamid’s message was clear. He asked ‘this Council to please stop praising Sudan for its “cooperation.” Mr President, attacking little girls is not “cooperation.”’ Later, at the very same session, Council members ignored the pleas of this survivor. The Council passed yet another resolution that called for the end to abuses in Darfur, but that also commended Sudan’s government for its efforts and called for it to receive further assistance and support. By ignoring Mr Hamid’s words, the Council was choosing to ignore every victim in Darfur.


The UN first discussed the horrors in Darfur in March 2003 thirteen months after the war began. Thirteen months that had seen deaths, rapes, burning villages, beatings and displacements. Thirteen months of ‘business as usual’ at the UN, with no formal discussion about the atrocities in Darfur. Thirteen months after the Organisation first discussed the situation in Darfur, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan Mukesh Kapila said that attacks against civilians were ‘close to ethnic cleansing’. He claimed that ‘the only difference between Rwanda [1994] and Darfur is the numbers involved of dead, tortured and raped.’ The following month, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan insisted that ‘…the international community cannot stand idle [but] must be prepared to take swift and appropriate action. By ‘action’ … I mean a continuum of steps, which may include military action’.

That action never materialised.

In the three years between 2004 and 2007, the UN Security Council passed 20 resolutions on Darfur. Some set up UN missions and others called for a peace agreement. None set out concrete steps for protecting individuals from rape, displacement, beatings or death. They were all passed unanimously. The same cannot be said of the resolutions that blamed Sudan’s government; or threatened to impose sanctions; or took action such as imposing travel bans, asset freezing, and preventing the sale of military equipment; or referred Sudan to the International Criminal Court. Set against the individual and collective suffering in Darfur, those resolutions were hardly robust; but they were nevertheless contentious, with Algeria, Brazil, China, Pakistan and Russia abstaining during the votes.

Sudan had powerful allies in China and Russia, who both hold veto powers at the Security Council. China and Russia were also supplying weapons to Sudan’s government. Sudan was also protected by its regional allies in Africa and its political allies in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The African Group and the OIC ensured that criticism of Sudan’s government was muted at the Human Rights Council and lacked unanimity at the Security Council. Not only did the UN fail to protect individuals in Darfur, the efforts of some of its major constituents ensured that those violations were able to continue.

The UN is failing to protect people from grave human rights abuses. It is failing to deal with the conflicts that give rise to wide scale atrocities. But why is it failing to confront these horrors? Although the UN may protect some human rights in some situations, there are vastly more failures than successes. This book explores what is possible in law, what is possible politically, and why the UN is failing to protect human rights.

Many books by eye-witnesses, victims, child soldiers, and activists detail individual and collective suffering. I am not well-placed to tell those stories, nor are they my stories to tell. I was not there. I did not experience abuses nor bear witness to atrocities. Each story is one of unbearable anguish. But each story is a personal account that cannot go beyond its own particular conflict and context. My aim in this book is to tell a different story: the story of why the international community allows conflicts to continue and human rights to be violated. It is a story of UN inaction.


This excerpt is the Prologue from Rosa Freedman’s new book, Failing to Protect: The UN and the Politicisation of Human Rights. The book was launched in May 2014 at an event jointly hosted by Berwin Leighton Paisner solicitors and the UK Human Rights Blog.


2 thoughts on “Failing to Protect: The UN and the Politicisation of Human Rights

  1. Pingback: Failing to Protect: read the Prologue online at the IntLawGrrls blog | Dr Rosa Freedman

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