The Place of Human Rights in the Work of the Armed Forces

  • van Genugten, W.J.M. (Principal Investigator)

Project: Research project

Project Details


Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the resulting unlocking of the UN Security Council, the United Nations has carried out around twenty peacekeeping operations. The large majority of these have related to civil conflicts, and a considerable number of operations have taken place in so-called 'failed states'. It is also significant that these operations are by no means always explicitly and exclusively aimed at maintaining or restoring international peace and security, and are equally motivated by human rights considerations. On this, see for example a number of UN Security Council Resolutions relating to former Yugoslavia (1992/757, 1992/771 and 1993/802), Somalia (1992/794 and 1993/814) and Rwanda (1993/812, 1994/912 and 1994/918).
Peacekeeping operations can of course generally be said to be good for human rights. Directed as they are towards restoring normality, they generally contribute to creating circumstances in which human rights can thrive, whether this relates to freedom of expression or freedom from torture, the right to food, accommodation or health care. However, peacekeeping operations and the unsettled situations in which they normally take place can sometimes persist for long periods, and often these are periods characterized by large-scale violations of internationally acknowledged human rights and rules of international humanitarian law. We may think here of the refusal to allow in humanitarian aid, in particular food and medicines, the use of violence to elicit confessions, the summary execution of civilians, the forced transfer of populations and the creation of streams of refugees, the bad treatment of prisoners of war, the kidnapping of innocent civilians, the absence of any functioning legal system, the destruction of property, the denial of freedom of expression, and so on. Such violations of international law are often observed by 'UN peacekeepers' who are forced in the circumstances to do nothing, whether because they are too few in number or inadequately armed, because they have other priorities or their mandate is too limited, or because any help provided to one side is seen as partisan in the eyes of the other.
The carrying out of UN peacekeeping operations therefore also raises a number of questions in relation to achieving human rights: should soldiers in the field supervise compliance with human rights, and if so, is this a legally enforceable duty, an authorization to act or a moral duty? And in any case, what does supervising compliance mean exactly, and how should the roles be defined on this point with other players such as human rights organizations (NGOs), the UN Security Council, the UN human rights reporters, and individual states (whether or not those supplying the soldiers for the relevant peacekeeping operation).
Effective start/end date1/01/0031/12/04


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