Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 07/2012

Advancing Human Rights in the UN System

Suzanne Nossel

May 2012

Council on Foreign Relations


The 2011–2012 crisis in Syria offers a painful reminder of the international community’s limited ability to prevent and halt large-scale human rights violations. As the number of casualties in the country continued to rise, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the main international body responsible for maintaining peace and security, struggled to appropriately react. For over a year and despite more than nine thousand documented deaths, the UNSC remained deadlocked, and it eventually managed to issue only weak presidential statements and, in April 2012, dispatch a small team of monitors to bolster a faltering ceasefire. During the same period, however, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) showed significant signs of revival and effectiveness. Intended to be the centerpiece of the UN’s human rights machinery, the UNHRC had—since its founding in 2006—been dubbed by diplomats a “leper of the UN system.” It was known for passivity in the face of human rights crises and for the polarized dynamic between countries of the global North and South.