Early warning and protection of human rights in situations of conflict, violence and insecurity

Relevance of the issue

Whether resulting from armed conflict, criminal activity, civil unrest or denial of basic economic and social rights, situations of conflict, violence and insecurity are invariably preceded by clearly identifiable patterns of human rights abuses and discrimination. Natural disasters often exacerbate pre-existing human rights issues, leading to further violence and insecurity.

In situations of international or non-international armed conflict, entire populations or particular sectors of the population are often subject to serious human rights violations, such as extra-judicial killings, torture and ill-treatment, starvation, disappearances, sexual violence and arbitrary detention. International human rights standards, whether established by treaty or custom, are applicable at all times in these contexts and both government forces and non-State actors engaged in a conflict can be held responsible for serious violations of human rights and breaches of humanitarian law. Humanitarian crises, whether man-made or resulting from natural disasters, also increase the vulnerability of entire populations, as well as specific groups, to human rights violations.

Syrians fleeing violence in their country cross into Jordan in search of safety. © EPA/Jamal Nasrallah
Syrians fleeing violence in their country cross into Jordan in search of safety.
© EPA/Jamal Nasrallah

It has become increasingly clear that patterns of human rights violations provide an early indication of a potential or emerging crisis and that early and targeted human rights interventions have a significant impact on preventing or mitigating a deterioration of the situation. The 2012 report of the Secretary-General’s Internal Review Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka demonstrated that when responses to situations of conflict, violence and insecurity fail to take into consideration human rights concerns, the protection of the affected people cannot be adequately ensured. The role of the UN system and the international community in preventing human rights violations and protecting human rights in those contexts cannot be overemphasized.

Social and economic related violence, including trafficking, also threaten fundamental rights, such as the rights to life and security. These situations of violence are often the result of ineffective or inadequate responses by States to serious threats posed by organized criminal actors or personal interests to the life, integrity and security of individuals and communities. Respect for human rights law provides the framework and a path to prevent, reduce and combat violence and insecurity. However, States often prioritize repressive measures that have actually led to further human rights violations. Furthermore, the complicity or engagement of public officials in illicit activities has contributed to furthering a loss of legitimacy, heightening the fragility of States and weakening their capacity to protect their populations. While State institutions that are needed to protect human rights often lack the capacity, resources or power to resolve a crisis or are part of the problem, civil society frequently lacks the political space, capacity or influence to make effective demands. Empowering individuals and communities to monitor deteriorating situations and demand justice and redress for human rights violations is essential to securing durable solutions.

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is an egregious human rights violation. While SGBV affects people from all sexes and gender identities, women and girls continue to represent a disproportionate majority of the victims, including of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. According to 2013 WHO estimates, approximately 35 per cent of all women will experience either intimate partner or non-partner violence in their lifetime. In conflict and post-conflict situations, as well as in other situations of concern, such as political strife, women and girls continue to be at greater risk of sexual and gender-based violence by both State and non-State actors. While manifestations of sexual and gender-based violence differ, they are often rooted in gender-based discrimination. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI persons are particularly susceptible to violence as they are often perceived as challenging established gender patterns. Official responses to violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity are often inadequate, with many States failing to implement their due diligence obligations, resulting in widespread impunity and lack of protection.

OHCHR expected contribution

Early warning and protection of human rights in situations of conflict, violence and insecurity
  • Increased number and variety of stakeholders engaged in conflict prevention, peacebuilding and other violence reduction processes
  • Civil society, in particular youth and women, increasingly advocate and claim their rights and protect themselves more effectively from reprisals
  • Legal frameworks, public policies, State institutions, as well as non-State actors, regulating or engaged in situations of conflict, violence and insecurity increasingly comply with international human rights standards

  • Legal frameworks, public policies and institutions are in place and functioning to combat sexual and gender-based violence, trafficking and related exploitation

  • Constitutions, laws and policies increasingly protect human rights, especially land and housing rights and with particular attention to non-discrimination and gender equality, in the context of development and exploitation of natural resources


  • Mechanisms and initiatives are adopted to increase human rights protection in contexts of conflict, violence and insecurity

  • Transitional justice mechanisms established and increasingly operating in accordance with international human rights norms, standards and good practices


  • Increased representation of marginalized and discriminated groups in State institutions and decision-making bodies


  • Increased number and diversity of rights-holders, and of national human rights institutions and civil society actors acting on their behalf, making use of United Nations and regional human rights mechanisms and bodies.


  • Increased compliance and engagement of Member States with international human rights mechanisms


  • Advances in the progressive development of international and regional human rights law in areas relevant to the thematic priorities


  • Increased responsiveness of the international community to potential, emerging or existing human rights crisis situations, with human rights protection as an integral element of this response


  • The protection of human rights is an integral part of the international community’s preparedness, response and recovery efforts in the context of humanitarian crises and is effectively integrated in the mandates, policies and actions of United Nations peacekeeping operations and special political missions
  • Increased integration of human rights standards and principles into the UN’s security policies and programmes, including the implementation of the Human Rights Due Diligence Policy on UN support to non-UN security forces.

By 2017, OHCHR expects to have contributed to the achievement of the results outlined on the table above. OHCHR will pursue these behavioural, institutional and legislative changes in cooperation with relevant partners and using the different strategic tools at its disposal (see Part I on OHCHR’s Theory of Change). It is expected that if achieved, these results will contribute to improving the duty-bearers’ compliance with their international human rights obligations and to the rights-holders’ ability to claim their rights, and thereby to the early warning and protection of human rights in situations of conflict, violence and insecurity. To illustrate the interrelated nature of the Thematic Strategies, the table shows all the results to which the Office is planning to contribute in this area, including relevant results from other strategies, which can be identified as follows: Mechanisms Strategy; Discrimination Strategy; Rule of Law Strategy; Development Strategy; Democracy Strategy.

OHCHR added value

Focus areas

  • International or non-international armed conflict
  • Humanitarian crises, both man-made and natural disasters
  • Social, economic and political violence, situations of civil unres, violence resulting from organized criminal activity, and other situations of violence and insecurity
  • Sexual and gender-based violence

By virtue of its mandate, OHCHR works to promote and protect the full enjoyment and realization by all people of their rights, both in times of peace and of conflict. National law, international human rights law, international refugee law and international humanitarian law are complementary and mutually reinforcing. As both a normative and operational entity, OHCHR aims to help duty-bearers provide appropriate responses, firmly grounded in international law and standards, to ensure the protection of individuals and groups against human rights violations. The Office works in the four types of situations of violence and insecurity reflected in the box above. These situations are not exclusive and may be simultaneously experienced by some countries.

OHCHR’s strength lies in its ability to critically analyse, report on and activate a wide range of complementary tools to raise awareness and provide key actors and decision-makers with up-to-date and potential early warning analysis of human rights violations occurring in emerging and ongoing crises. In this way, the Office contributes to early warning and early action by the UN and the broader international community.

OHCHR has increasingly engaged with Member States to ensure that human rights, and accountability for human rights violations, are taken into account in responses to conflict. In particular, the Office interacts with members of the Security Council and the General Assembly to ensure their decisions are informed by a sound understanding of key human rights issues. In past years, the Security Council has systematically included human rights as part of the core mandates of UN peace operations and special political missions and has increasingly called upon OHCHR to provide information and expertise on human rights issues, including the protection of civilians. OHCHR’s organization of commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions has been proven to be an effective tool in the response of the international community to man-made crises.

Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Flavia Pansieri, arrives in Mambassa in Ituri, Democratic Republic of the Congo. © MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti
Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Flavia Pansieri, arrives in
Mambassa in Ituri, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
© MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti

The UN ’Rights Up Front’ Plan of Action to implement within the UN system the findings of the report of the Secretary-General’s Internal Review Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka, the Human Rights Due Diligence Policy (HRDDP) and the Policy on Human Rights Screening of UN Personnel represent significant advances in mainstreaming human rights within the UN system. The ’Rights Up Front’ Plan highlights the importance of early UN and Member States’ action to address emerging situations involving violations of human rights and, where relevant, international humanitarian law. It clearly acknowledges the need for human rights information and analysis to be readily available to the UN and Member States as a basis for action and the need to improve UN responsiveness to such situations. Through the ’Rights Up Front’ Plan of Action, OHCHR will be at the forefront of promoting a global consensus among international actors and building a comprehensive UN approach. The Human Rights Due Diligence Policy adopted in July 2011 requires all UN entities involved in supporting security forces to take into account human rights considerations and risks and adapt their support accordingly. OHCHR’s role is critical to ensuring that the policy is applied in a meaningful and coherent manner, including by providing information and analysis on human rights records of security forces. While providing a unique opportunity to effectively place human rights at the centre of UN action, these policies also pose challenges to the capacity of the UN system as a whole and OHCHR in particular.

Together with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), the Department of Field Support (DFS) and DPA, OHCHR has developed a practical and operational policy framework that ensures the mainstreaming of human rights into all aspects of the work of peace missions, while maintaining the independence and impartiality of their human rights components.

Human rights engagement in protracted conflicts and contested territories is crucial for supporting effective political, security, development and humanitarian efforts. OHCHR’s role in these contexts is to activate available UN human rights tools to bridge existing human rights protection gaps; contribute to a coherent and mutually reinforcing approach within the UN; and systematically review developments in international and customary law to define policy approaches and interventions.

OHCHR has acted as a critical advocate for the protection of human rights during humanitarian crises through its work in the Humanitarian Protection Cluster and has ensured the inclusion of human rights and international humanitarian law concerns as an integral part of the life-saving, early recovery and development efforts of the humanitarian community, including the overall UN’s response to crises. The work of OHCHR has been instrumental in integrating the protection of human rights in key Inter-Agency Standing Committee(IASC) initiatives, such as the Transformative Agenda. When adequately resourced, OHCHR has had a significant impact in humanitarian crisis situations. More specifically, the Office works with affected populations and governments to identify, understand and address locally relevant human rights concerns. UN human rights mechanisms supported by OHCHR, especially those concerned with the protection of women and specific groups, such as migrants, indigenous peoples, minorities or internally displaced peoples, also have an important role to play in informing the humanitarian community’s protection, preparedness, response and early recovery work. Additional resources are, however, necessary to ensure OHCHR delivers on its commitments to be a predictable and reliable member of the global community responding to humanitarian crisis situations.

Young Sudanese carrying a banner with the slogan, “We Need Peace Now,” march in the parade organized by the African Union-UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) to commemorate the International Day of Peace, which launched a six-month campaign to support the peace process in Darfur. © UN Photo/Albert González Farra
Young Sudanese carrying a banner with the slogan, “We Need Peace Now,”
march in the parade organized by the African Union-UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) to commemorate the International Day of Peace, which launched a six-month campaign to support the peace process in Darfur.
© UN Photo/Albert González Farra

OHCHR focuses its efforts in countries lacking an appropriate and/or effective State response to situations of violence. Through targeted interventions and on the basis of its expertise and experience in human rights monitoring, investigation, analysis and advocacy, OHCHR has helped defuse tensions and reduced potential violence in specific situations, such as those involving social protests and actions in defence of land or other rights. The Office advocates for and supports the implementation of comprehensive approaches to prevent criminal violence (with a particular focus on access to rights and livelihood opportunities), encompassing the protection of groups at risk, the enactment of legislative frameworks that are compliant with human rights standards, and accountability. OHCHR’s experience and expertise regarding international standards and the recommendations of human rights mechanisms on the use of force and access to justice enable the Office to assist States to effectively address criminal violence and insecurity and related widespread impunity. Ensuring that security forces and non-State actors comply with human rights and international humanitarian law is fundamental in situations of conflict, violence and insecurity. OHCHR’s experience with human rights monitoring also enables it to provide valuable feedback to Member States as they seek to fulfil their human rights obligations in this area. The Office assists Member States in assessing their strengths and weaknesses and reinforcing the capacity of security forces to be professional, accountable and human rights-compliant institutions. The Office’s added value lies in its experience of working with governments and security forces around the globe and its ability to tailor technical assistance packages to local contexts.

OHCHR’s strength in combating sexual and genderbased violence (SGBV) is rooted in its human rights approach, which links responses to the elimination of gender-based discrimination and understands SGBV as occurring across a continuum, from peace to conflict situations, moving from the home to community spaces and across borders. OHCHR uses its convening power to bring together different constituencies, including stakeholders working on violence against women, sexual violence, trafficking, women’s empowerment, sexual and reproductive health and rights, the rights of LGBTI persons and the rights of migrants to promote a rights-based and comprehensive approach to the eradication of sexual and gender-based violence.

OHCHR is also a vocal advocate for victims of SGBV, trafficking and related exploitation and provides technical assistance and advice on the establishment of adequate legal frameworks to combat SGBV, trafficking and exploitation and ensure access to justice for survivors and victims. As a co-lead entity of the Team of Experts on the rule of law and sexual violence in conflict (Security Council resolution 1888) and through the work of human rights components of peace missions and relevant offices, the Office ensures the inclusion of a human rights-based approach in strengthening national capacities and legal frameworks to combat impunity for conflict-related sexual violence.

For more information about how OHCHR intends to contribute to the changes outlined in this page, please see the complete text, which is contained in the OHCHR Management Plan 2014-2017.