“Protecting Human Rights Today Helps Prevent Crises Tomorrow”


Erik Friberg has just wrapped up a ‘United Nations sabbatical’ hosted by the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. Friberg was in Lund, Sweden, doing research on the roles of human rights in prevention efforts. He has now returned to work at the UN Human Rights Office, which he joined in 2005 and where he has held various functions in field presences and at the headquarters in Geneva. Before he left Lund, we sat down with him to ask a few questions about his sabbatical work.

Why are you focusing on prevention?

We continue to see how human rights violations often are a precursor to, as well as a consequence of, violence and violent conflict, with devastating impacts on people’s lives all around the world. Yet, far more time and resources continue to be spent responding to crises than on preventing them. As the UN Secretary-General has said, we must make prevention our priority, tackle the root causes of violent conflict, help build and strengthen institutions, and react earlier and more effectively to address human rights concerns. Upholding human rights is a crucial element in prevention.
Are there any preliminary findings of your research?

Ensuring that human rights are protected today contributes to the prevention of possible crises tomorrow. Nonetheless, the deterioration in a human rights situation does not happen overnight and is often the result of a combination of factors over time. Such factors can be identified and assessed to inform and activate prevention responses. Human rights upheld also returns stability to countries and regions by advancing justice for all. However, when violations and grievances are left unaddressed, situations can deteriorate over time and then provide increasingly narrow, uncertain and costly options to try to resolve them. As a starting point, the primary responsibility for prevention rests with States, while the UN, regional organisations and other partners can contribute in different ways. By reviewing experiences, I am cataloguing some tools and approaches that can contribute to prevention efforts, illustrating also the inherently preventive power of human rights.

What are the challenges?

The number of persons in need of protection and assistance is at its highest since the end of World War II. While improved early warning analysis may well identify the structural and dynamic risk factors in deteriorating situations – or what some call the root and proximate causes to violations or violence – a reoccurring challenge is to subsequently ensure early action. As the consequences of failures continue to be experienced by tens of millions and by entire regions, we need to do better in translating early warnings into more timely and effective early action.

What can be done and by whom?

A recent UN & World Bank joint study ‘Pathways for Peace’ identified patterns in the experience of countries that addressed risks early, prevented violence escalation and/or avoided recurrence. While strategies vary by context, the study pointed to three overarching important elements: (i) prevention efforts were generally nationally led; (ii) addressed grievances related to power, services, security, and resources; and (iii) involved the formation of coalitions – local to global, government and non-governmental, public and private – to ensure that prevention was a collective effort.

States can undertake a range of measures to ensure respect for and protection of the human rights for all those within the State’s territory or jurisdiction, as a framework for the prevention of violations. This include the ratification of international human rights treaties and ensuring their implementation at the domestic level, ensuring effective remedies and institutional changes to prevent recurrence, and systematically infusing human rights education in the formal education system and in the training of civil servants, military and the police. States are also encouraged to provide an enabling environment for National Human Rights Institutions, the media and civil society to perform their key functions.

The UN and regional organisations support States to fulfil their human rights obligations and assists rights-holders to realise their rights. This also entails efforts to increase State and civil society capacities and resilience and to build up regional and national early warning expertise to identify risk factors and respond to them.

Indeed, every one of us has an important contribution to make such as by actively rejecting discrimination and xenophobia in our daily lives. The UN Human Rights Office has for example launched a “stand up for someone’s rights today” campaign, which encourages us all to do so.

What will you do once back at work in Geneva?

When I return in October, my next assignment is to further develop the UN Human Rights Office’s methodological guidance and training on integrating human rights in humanitarian emergencies. We want to strengthen our office’s expertise and our ability to deploy staff in humanitarian contexts as needed. Placing a human rights framework at the centre contributes to more effective humanitarian responses that recognise affected populations as rights-holders and leave no one behind. We will continue improving our impact and support when prevention fails – while also working for prevention efforts to succeed in the first place.