Derechos Humanos y Defensa de la defensa

The Rule of law and human rights are recurring topics at recent United Nations meetings

The rule of law and human rights are recurring topics at recent United Nations meetings

By Jutta Bertram-Nothnagel

The UIA pays close attention not only to long-term negotiating processes at the United Nations, such as the sessions held to design the Sustainable Development Goals for the post-2015 phase, but also to many United Nations meetings that States, United Nations organs, other intergovernmental bodies, and non-governmental organizations organize as specific events, including open debates on an emerging topic, expert panels, and informal briefings. Many of these latter events feed into and inform existing long-term processes or lead to intensified efforts towards consensus built around new concerns.

In the course of the last few weeks, multiple meetings at the United Nations have continued to address the rule of law and human rights, be it in the context of economic and social development, peace and security, or environmental protection. A few of these meetings are highlighted here:

On 29 January 2014, the Security Council held an Open Debate on “War, its lessons and the search for a permanent peace”.  In preparation for the debate, Jordan, which presided over the Security Council in January, had issued a concept paper underlining that shared historic understanding could reinforce sustainable peace (UN Doc. S/2014/30). Jordan proposed to the Security Council mandating a United Nations historical advisory team to assist with the establishment of national archives and national and international historical commissions. The dangerous impact of opposite historical narratives and seemingly irreconcilable legal interpretations is readily discernible in current conflicts. At the same time, the debate grappled with questions of how indispensable, conducive or sufficient a common historical understanding was for the quest towards peace. In his opening remarks, Jeffrey Feltman, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs warned of the cultivation of divisions through wartime rhetoric and zero-sum thinking. “Leaders need to set examples ... by deeds of genuine cooperation and honest examinations of their own roles in conflict.” More than fifty States offered statements in the course of a debate that was exceptional in its depth and effort to find tools for lasting reconciliation. The Security Council press release (SC/11266) with a summary of the debate and a more extensive meeting record (UN Doc. S/PV.7105) are available at

The Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie,, held a special event at the United Nations on 30 January to launch a new practical guide on transition, justice, truth and reconciliation processes in the francophone area. The initiative of the OIF had the cooperation of the Permanent Mission of Morocco to the United Nations and of the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, United Nations Department of Political Affairs. The guide uses a comparative approach surveying the use of truth commissions, traditional and international justice mechanisms and other approaches in different countries. The information provided can be helpful to law associations not only with regard to possible needs within their immediate jurisdiction but also for assistance and capacity building across borders.

An Open Debate in the Security Council on 19 February 2014 focused on the promotion and strengthening of the rule of law in the maintenance of international peace and security. The Security Council has held thematic debates on the rule of law on a recurring basis since 2003. The Council had before it a report by the Secretary General (UN Doc. S/2013/341) and a concept note (UN Doc. S/2014/75) by Lithuania, president of the Security Council in February. More than 60 States spoke and related the concerns and goals utmost on their minds.  Lawyers’ associations are in a prime position to assist with the rule of law objectives of their governments and to support international initiatives. For detail about the important debate see the Security Council press release (SC/11285) and the meeting record (UN Doc. S/PV.7133), both available at

On 27 February 2014, a panel discussion addressed  “The rule of law, peace and security, human rights and development”. The event was chaired by United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson and organized in preparation of a report requested from the Secretary-General under the 2012 Declaration of the High-Level Meeting of the General Assembly on the rule of law at the national and international levels.  (The 2012 High-Level Meeting and its preparatory process were attended by the UIA.) Denmark and Mexico, the co-facilitators of the negotiating process for the 2012 Declaration delivered the opening remarks, describing the rule of law as both an enabler and outcome with regard to the three pillars and objectives of the United Nations, namely peace and security, human rights, and development.  One of the panelists, Louise Arbour, President of the International Crisis Group, former High Commissioner for Human Rights, and former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, emphasized that the real purpose of law is to liberate and underlined the inseparability of human rights and the rule of law if the latter is not to become dictatorial, discriminatory and cruel. Irene Kahn, President of the International Development Law Organization, concentrated on the importance of the rule of law for development and noted, among other things, the imperative for the inclusion of women in justice systems. Professor Muna Ndula of Cornell University spoke of the need to establish the rule of law in the context of the particular country and to respect country ownership in this regard: Laws could not be simply transported from one State to another. The panel presentations were followed by a rich array of comments and questions from many States. For example, a number of States noted their frustrations about the poor attention given to the rule of law and human rights in a recent document on the “Focus Areas” for the design of Sustainable Development Goals (available at ). (The Goals are to guide post-2015 development action.) Concerns were also expressed about illegal laws violating human rights, notably laws permitting invasions of privacy or persecuting human beings based on their sexual orientation. Several States urged greater attention to the United Nations Charter’s Chapter VI on the peaceful settlement of disputes and advocated increased resort to the International Court of Justice. They called in this context for new initiatives to achieve wider acceptance of the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and increased use of the Court. The comments included also calls for the universality of the Convention for the Prevention of Genocide and for further ratifications of the Kampala amendments on the crime of aggression under the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court. The lack of judicial review of Security Council decisions, especially with regard to the Council’s sanctions regime, was considered highly problematic. In his concluding remarks, Mr. Eliasson warned that the three pillars and objectives of the United Nations, peace and security, human rights, and development were under strong strains. He reiterated that the 2012 Declaration on the Rule of Law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Chapter VI of the Charter of the United Nations were indispensable tools to lessen the strains. An archived video of the event is available on UN Web TV,

At the time of preparing this newsletter the Commission on the Status of Women, a subsidiary body of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, is holding its 58th session, 10-21 March 2014, The sessions of the Commission, regularly attended by the UIA, are filled to the brim not only with the official proceedings but with a myriad of side events,  – this year over one hundred  –, organized by States, intergovernmental bodies and non-governmental organizations. While the agenda of the work program is centered on a specified priority theme, a review theme and an emerging issue, the session as a whole offers information about a much wider range of topics. The UIA has paid particular attention to new studies and projects advancing the participation of women in justice systems and peace negotiations.

The above events invite closer study to inform the policies of lawyer associations. The UIA Bar Leaders’ Briefing at the United Nations on 30 May 2014 will provide an opportunity to gain additional insight into recent international developments concerning the rule of law and human rights and to exchange thoughts about the interplay between the national and international levels.


Jutta F. Bertram-Nothnagel

Director of the Relations with Intergovernmental Organizations

Union Internationale des Avocats

18 March 2014