Converging law, Security Council resolutions and (un)intended international legal effects

As opined elsewhere,* international human rights law may be viewed as the juristic holder of our ‘embodied vulnerability’ to hurt and harm. And, as such, it transcends time and space; it continues to be seized, shaped and expressed by those made vulnerable. However it is also in flux: its legal expression is partial and ‘embodied vulnerability’ itself is fluid. Consider treaty law: layered beneath the content and framing of substantive treaty provisions is the treaty making process; constructive ambiguity may be co-opted as a tool to promote agreement; notable absences may signify an agreement shortfall—or alternatively unexpressed or as yet unfelt/imagined vulnerability. Viewed in this way, the imperative of deepening the connection between ‘embodied vulnerability’ and its legal expression is ongoing. And this is evidenced by the adoption of multiple thematic human rights treaties in the past quarter of a century. However, two conflicting dynamics undergird the prima facie certainty of the law: the ever present forces of progression and regression. The Security Council is an extraordinary source of those forces; and the thematic resolutions on children a particular expression of their sometimes progressive, other times regressive effects.

This, the Council’s law effecting potentiality, is heightened by a confluence of legal dynamics flowing from its primary responsibility. These flow principally from the depths of the relations between that responsibility and egregious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law: the latter may, after all, if not provoke, exacerbate, threats to international peace and security. Thus the Council increasingly, if non-consistently, seizes its discretion to escalate conduced compliance with applicable international legal obligations, as exemplified by the aforementioned thematic resolutions. In so engaging, the Council necessarily interprets and expresses applicable international law ‘in’ and ‘through’ its resolutions including international law relating to children. However international legal equivocation frames the extent to which it is bound within its decision-making processes by broader international law, beyond the Charter of its birth. Yet these resolutions if not legal acts have legal effects: the resolutions (or selected provisions thereof) may inform subsequent practice (by guiding the interpretation and implementation of applicable treaty law) or be cited, themselves, as evidence of subsequent practice.

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Converging law, (un)intended vulnerability and international peace and security

The Security Council may be viewed as the juristic holder of ‘international peace and security’. Yet this is largely undefined in the Charter of its birth. And so too is its relationship with broader international law. Legal arguments abound: some view the Council unbound; others view it bound with discretion to depart for its primary responsibility (and of course there is a spectrum in between). In the search for certainty, international legal equivocation rules. Ipso facto, the Council is a holder of extraordinary power. Yet threats to international peace and security often have a legal expression—egregious violations of international humanitarian and human rights, some of which may be international crimes. Thus viewed, undergirding the Council’s engagement is a shift from ordinary to extraordinary ‘embodied vulnerability’ to hurt and harm. And it, therefore, may be supposed retracting these vulnerability shifts—by conducing compliance with applicable international legal obligations—lies at the core of its decision-making about maintaining international peace and security. And increasingly, if non-consistently, the Council so acts. It, then, is an extraordinary expression of the omnipresent interrelations between power and ‘embodied vulnerability’ to hurt and harm—and its thematic resolutions on children a particular embodiment of those same interrelations.

Prima facie, they are expressive of a rights-protecting relationship. In seizing itself of the subject the Council frames serious violations of international law relating to children as threats to international peace and security. And thereby connects conducing compliance–with those same international legal obligations–to its primary responsibility. Thus the engagement itself may be viewed as a vital dignifying act: the repeated condemnations of serious violations of international law connect ‘embodied vulnerability’ to its international legal expression—and, in doing so, the law itself is reaffirmed and safeguarded. And, so too, are its multifarious acts to conduce compliance: its sui generis monitoring and reporting mechanism and repeated reiterations of its readiness to consider targeted and graduated measures for non-compliance. Through these resolutions the Council, therefore, may escalate conduced compliance, as exemplified by the actions plans prepared by listed parties.

Probe more deeply and there is an underside. The resolutions are premised on a double tiered prioritisation: the designation of six violations of international law as grave and the prioritisation of five over time* within its monitoring and reporting mechanism. Thus the protective effects are partial: focused on discrete dimensions of the law and therefore discrete rights-holders and violators of international legal obligations. Therein lies three points of potential (un)intended vulnerability. In so acting, the Council engages in a form of meta-bargaining about rights. Needless to state this creates the risk of politically infused rights prioritisations; the latter may relate more to the identity, and Council members’ relationship with the rights-violator, than its primary responsibility. Layered on this is the potentiality of the outcomes to reify vulnerability. The double tiered prioritisation may have unintended international legal effects; it may sideline or reframe the positive obligation to ensure the right to freedom from all forms of violence, as expressed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Further this potentiality is exacerbated by the framing; it is indeterminate of rights-based approach; some provisions are systemically connected to applicable law; others are not.

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