In celebration of Human Rights Day and the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, the Cultural Service of the Campus St-Paul St Georges in Vannes (Brittany) organized on Thursday 10th December 2015, in collaboration with the CIPADH and other organizations, several workshops on these topics, followed by an evening roundtable bringing together many experts from diverse NGOs and institutions.
This event – part of a week-long activities on human rights – aimed to make several classes of high school students more aware of human rights issues and current stakes around the functioning and reforms needed in the United Nations system. To this aim, many History and Philosophy teachers at Saint Paul, as well as two CIPADH’s representatives, led workshops covering various themes such as human rights guaranteed by international treaties like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the functioning of the UN, its role in promoting peace and respect for human rights and, more generally, the possibility of international cooperation and the sharing of common or universal values between peoples. The coordination and communication around this day was foreseen by Cédric Le Ru, Head of Culture and Audiovisual affairs for the school.
The day was punctuated by various workshops and presentations where 200 students were able to learn and reflect about the UN system and complex themes presented in a transdisciplinary approach and through a comprehensive and critical analysis of international institutions. The workshops covered the following topics:
Workshop 1: UN: Step or final outcome of a historical process?
Workshop 2: How to convey universal values while respecting cultural identities?
Workshop 3: What role does the UN play in promoting human rights?
Workshop 4: Does a worldwide organization solve global crises?
Workshop 5: Can we maintain peace by waging war: "Peacekeeping - Peacebuilding"?
Representatives of CIPADH - Tamara Kloos and Celine Krebs - led workshops 1, 3 and 5, and insisted on the historical origins and the political will to contribute to the principles of "collective security" and "maintaining international peace and security" first guaranteed by the League of Nations in 1919 and then in 1945 by the UN Charter. After presenting the structure of the organization, its goals, its mandates, the organs that compose it, we have also highlighted institutional problems like its lack of legitimacy and its inability to adapt to the current economic and political contexts. More specifically, by referring to the under-representation of certain states within the Security Council or the abuse of the veto power by some of the five permanent members that block necessary resolutions that could authorize intervention in Syria or Yemen. This need for structural reforms, however, was offset by the UN's capacity to adapt to global challenges, including climate change, through the adoption of the "Sustainable Development Goals" this year, thus replacing the "Millennium Development Goals”.
CIPADH’s representatives also presented in more details the contribution of the UN in the field of promoting human rights and peacekeeping missions to meet the needs of post-conflict situations. Students reacted positively and thoughtfully to those interventions by underlining the tensions in the UN system such as the lack of implementation by certain states despite binding resolutions by the Security Council or even the frustration experienced by peacekeepers who cannot resort to the use of force even in conflict situations. The young audience was invited to reflect and even challenge overarching principles like the universality of human rights by admitting the prominence of cultural diversity.
Workshop 3: What is the role of the UN in the promotion of human rights?
CIPADH’s representatives emphasized the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which acts as a fundamental norm of international law for the promotion and defense of human rights, civil and political, as well as economic, social, cultural. This Declaration has gradually been supplemented by various covenants and treaties which form a solid foundation to guarantee human rights universally, called the "International Bill of Human Rights." The various organs and representatives who have the task of checking the implementation of numerous treaties - such as the Commission on Human Rights, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the High Commissioner - have also been mentioned. Facing strong criticism regarding the selectivity of the situations studied and the lack of systematic and effective monitoring, the Human Rights Commission was then replaced by the Human Rights Council, created in 2006. The creation of this body has been accompanied by an increase in its powers through new instruments aimed at protecting human rights. We then introduced the Universal Periodic Review, which allows the verification of the implementation of the treaties by all 193 UN members, who must submit themselves to the review every 4 years. The other instrument is the important role played by the Special Rapporteurs, who are independent experts and have the task of investigating violations of human rights according to a specific theme on behalf of the High Commissioner. While nuancing persistent political issues in the Human Rights Council, we concluded that the UN was able to establish a constructive and cooperative dialogue among States on these issues and made these debates more democratic overtime, allowing the participation of the civil society and the media.
Workshop 5: Can we maintain peace by waging war: "Peacekeeping - Peacebuilding"?
The workshop on peacekeeping operations mainly focused on the dilemmas of this major tool of the UN. These operations are the main component of the maintenance of international peace and are also the most visible element of the work of the UN on the international stage. The workshop initially focused on a definition of terms, focusing on the three basic principles: consent of the parties, impartiality and non-use of force (except in self-defense or when their mandate makes it indispensable). The UN peacekeeping operations being absent from the Charter and the UN still having not clearly stated what is meant by this term, the terminology used to define them becomes all the more important. Defining terms such as peacebuilding, peacekeeping, peace enforcement, peacemaking, really matter.
The second important step of the workshop was to question this strange concept of 'peacekeepers', a particularly complex term, since they use force to establish peace. UN peacekeepers provide security as well as the necessary political support to peacebuilding by assisting countries to take the difficult step in the transition to peace. It is important to mention the contribution of member states in the implementation of peacekeeping operations since the UN does not have its own army. Therefore the participation of Member States is essential and influences the deployment time of a mission. The workshop continued with a review of the missions launched since their inception in the 50s, focusing on the many setbacks suffered in the 1990s, such as the Srebrenica massacre or genocide in Rwanda. A transformation in conflict, becoming more intra-state than interstate has greatly changed the dynamics of the operations, making them more complex, and including political, military as well as humanitarian actions. Finally, the 16 current missions were also mentioned while ending with a reflection of the effectiveness of these operations, mentioning the obstacles present to the Security Council because of the veto power of the five permanent members. In a context where there is no consensus on the way forward and operations becoming more complex and multidimensional, it is important to reflect on the future of peacekeeping operations.
Reactions of students
The students recognized the complexity of these issues and have responded to these interventions by pointing out, through their questions, tensions or inherent limits to the functioning of the UN. Regarding the concept of "universal human rights", we led them to reflect on a compromise between the cultural specificities claimed by Asian or African societies, for example, and the need to respect human rights for all individuals. A student then took the case of the right to education by proposing to establish a right to education, but leaving each country free to define its priorities and topics taught. By highlighting the fact that some developing countries considered their economic development as a prerequisite for the respect of human rights, it led students to recognize that "democracy seemed to be a luxury" for some countries, while it was a founding element of European societies. They also raised some contradictions inherent in peacekeeping operations supported by the UN. To better understand how the UN works, regardless of the criticism, we tried to explain the reasoning behind the blockages and thus, the inability of the UN system to work. For example, students mentioned Resolution 242 of the Security Council, as well as thirty other resolutions not respected by Israel, which ordered the "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from occupied territories”. This example clearly shows the lack of respect for international law, the impunity of certain states like Israel due to their special relationship with one of the five permanent members. In addition, students also expressed their concern about the mandate of peacekeepers that are sometimes seen as powerless during conflicts or confrontations where the use of force is prohibited.
The CIPADH, together with the Lycée Saint Paul, recognized the importance of bringing the understanding of these issues to the attention of the younger generation – issues that are rarely covered during their school careers - which can cause a lack of interest or even a feeling of distrust towards the international cooperation and the UN system. It is therefore essential that these students understand the causes behind the problems, but also the reforms necessary for this inter-governmental cooperation. Indeed, it will become crucial for the next generation to defend the ideals of peace and human rights at global level, where our predecessors have only partially succeeded.