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United Nations policy documents on

Human Rights and Prevention 


António Guterres, in his first briefing to the Security Council, on 10 Jan 2017 stated:


We spend far more time and resources responding to crises rather than preventing them. People are paying too high a price. […] We need a whole new approach. [...] For me, prevention is not merely a priority, but the priority.”

The UN policy documents listed below repeatedly emphasise the need for linkages between conflict prevention, peacebuilding and human rights, strengthening civil society and local approaches. From our point of view, human rights, transitional justice and accountability also need to be reviewed through a prevention lens. For instance: 

  • Traditional reporting of human rights violations are not contextualised to situate violations within a progression of dehumanisation that lead to mass atrocities;

  • Human rights cases utilising regional human rights courts, treaty bodies or special procedures are focused on specific violations working in silos rather than linking facts with their wider context;

  • Human rights violations, when reported, are not linked to broader drivers of violence. For instance drawing out patterns of hate ideology and those who incite and manipulate hate ideology; so that judicial decisions can eventually address other responsible actors or trends.

  • Accountability for mass atrocities through transitional justice mechanisms, particularly top down accountability in the form of international courts and tribunals, is invariably backward looking, rather than cognisant of its preventative potential.

  • There is significant scope also to emphasise prevention in a range of other transitional justice mechanisms, including formulation of reparations programmes. 


UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech
May 2019

UN launches the Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech

Calls for all governments, societies, the private sector and individuals to tackle hate speech, including:

  • Promotion of counter-narratives through increased freedom of speech; ‘The UN supports more speech, not less, as the key means to address hate speech’.

  • Increased data collection and research regarding the root causes, drivers and conditions which lead to hate speech. 

  • Empowering a digital generation to identify and reject hate speech.


In advocating freedom of speech in connection with combatting hate speech, this recognises the proposals put forth by UN HRC Res 16/18 in 2011. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ remarks at the plan of action’s launch identified hate speech as a precursor to atrocity crimes and genocide. The strategy therefore marks a key development within Guterres’  ‘prevention vision’.

UN Special Rapporteur's
Oct 2017

UN Report on a Comprehensive Framework Approach to Prevention by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice and Reparation (Pablo de Greiff)

Proposes a comprehensive framework for prevention. The framework includes:

  1. The role of State institutions, e.g. in the recognition of legal identity, ratification of human rights treaties, judicial and constitutional reforms, establishment of a constitution and constitutional courts, review of anti-terrorism legislation, security sector reform

  2. The preventive role of civil society, e.g. human rights monitoring and reporting, promoting a strong and autonomous civil society able to aggregate and amplify voices and thereby promote inclusion, promotion of social cohesion and diverse bonds connecting different social groups through coalitions and networks. Inclusive education, archiving and documentation.

Security Council Resolution

"Sustaining Peace Resolutions" adopted by the General Assembly and the Security Council – GA/70/262, SC 2282 (2016).

Both bodies emphasised the “importance of a comprehensive approach to sustaining peace, particularly through the prevention of conflict and addressing its root causes”, reaffirmed “the primary responsibility of national Governments” and stressed “that civil society can play an important role in advancing efforts to sustain peace”

Atrocity Prevention Framework

Framework for Analysis of Atrocity Crimes: A Risk Assessment Tool by the Offices of the Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and on the Responsibility to Protect – 16 February 2016. 

The Framework provides a useful section on the legal basis for protection and an expansive understanding of how prevention can be achieved. The Framework specifically mentions strengthening the rule of law, institution-building, eradicating corruption, managing diversity and inclusion, strengthening civil society and achieving a “pluralistic media”.

Independent High Level Panel Report

Report of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations on uniting our strengths for peace: politics, partnership and people.

The report argues that militarized approaches to conflict prevention and protection of civilians, which were the usual default response to the risk of conflict, provide “only short-term and in some cases fleeting or illusory success while further exacerbating some of the grievances underlying the conflict” (A/70/95- S/2017/446, para. 14). The Panel went on to advocate that unarmed strategies “must be at the forefront of United Nations efforts to protect civilians ” and recommended that United Nations “missions work more closely with local communities and national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in building a protective environment.” (ibid., paras. 86 and 105 (a)).

Study on implementation of 1325/2000

The global study on the implementation of resolution 1325 (2000), entitled Preventing Conflict, Transforming Justice, Securing the Peace.


This themed report documents how the empowerment of women contributes to strengthening peace operations, attaining peace agreements, improving humanitarian assistance, countering violent extremism and achieving sustainable peace. The report emphasises that an over-reliance on an outdated militarised view of conflict and conflict prevention (resorting to peacekeeping once crises erupt) or a narrow view providing late-stage mediation and good offices, is but a poor substitute for non-militarised, long-term, much earlier governance and development approaches.

Human Rights Up Front Initiative

Sec. General Ban Ki Moon introduces the "Human Rights Up Front Initiative" to cut across all of the UN's operations. Here is a Summary for staff.


The Initiative introduces three types of change:

  • Cultural change: (i) All staff and UN entities to conduct their work with an awareness of their wider responsibility to support the UN Charter and overall UN mandates. (ii) Staff to take principled positions and act with moral courage; (iii) UNHQ to back staff who uphold overall UN responsibilities; (iv) greater accountability for UN action.

  • Operational change. (i) Bring the UN’s three pillars together. (ii) Joint analysis and strategy by the UN system, in the field and UNHQ. (iii) Better early warning and response.

  • Change to UN engagement with Member States: (i) Proactive engagement with national authorities about concerns identified in analysis; (ii) early and full engagement with Member States to prevent large-scale human rights violations.

Link to an academic evaluation of the HRUF Initiative:


E Strauss, The UN Secretary-General’s Human Rights Up Front Initiative and the Prevention Of Genocide: Impact, Potential, Limitations (2018).

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