Human Rights Up Front Initiative

Human Rights Up Front Initiative

In this article, we shall discuss the United Nations Human Rights Up Front Initiative. We shall examine the history of the UN human right up front initiative, the reasons for the formation of this new UN initiative, and the development of the program. 

What is the Human Rights Up Front Initiative?

The Human Rights Up Front Initiative is a program implemented by the United Nations in December of 2013 by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. The UN Human Rights Up Front Initiative was created following the events during the events of 2008 2009 conflict in the country of Sri Lanka. In 2008, the fighting between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was intensifying. However, one of the problems during this increase in conflict was the failure by the United Nations to respond by warning civilians about increased violence. In fact, “In several instances, the UN failed to disclose full information about threats to and attacks on population centers and medical facilities. It even tried to silence staff members who did so” (Kurtz, 2015). 

For example, “In September 2008, when the UN was forced to withdraw from Kilinochchi, the de facto capital of the rebel-held territory in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, it did not make public that the government had repeatedly bombed the vicinity of the UN base, and that shelling by the Sri Lankan army posed a serious threat to UN staff. The withdrawal of UN workers led to the absence of international witnesses to the war3 and substantially complicated the delivery of humanitarian aid. The UN began sending weekly humanitarian convoys to the rebel-held territory under increasingly dire security conditions” (Kurtz, 2015). There was a member of the United Nations who tried to speak on the issues in Sri Lanka. John Campbell, who worked for the World Food Programme, and was with one of the convoys, spoke about the “much less than ideal” conditions on the ground, and even compared the situation in Sri Lanka to that of Somalia. 

These statements upset the Sri Lankan government, which in turn, led Adnan Khan, who was the WFP Country Director (in Sri Lanka) to refer to Campbell’s comments as a matter of “person opinion.” Then, not only did the government of Sri Lanka ban Campbell from working in the northern part of the country, but on top of that, the United Nations did not renew Campbell’s work contract (Kurtz, 2015). 

Then, in January of the year 2009, additional events led to further scrutinizing of the UN’s response to the war in Sri Lanka. During this month, the Sri Lankan military was striking facilities for medicine, even when they were told the coordinates of the medical facilities. Following this, the United Nations team on the ground was collecting information with regards to civilian deaths. While the UN Country Team reported their findings, they “did not reveal that the army, as shown by the data, was responsible for the vast majority of casualties” Kurtz, 2015). Then, “When then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay published the confidential figures on her own, Resident Coordinator Neil Buhne, on instructions from headquarters, apologized to the Sri Lankan government and emphasized that the figures were not reliable” (Kurtz, 2015).

In late 2009, the military of the Sri Lankan government was pushing towards the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). During their offensive, there were 300,000 civilians who were caught between the fighting. 

Had the United Nations put more serious pressure on the government, there is a belief that the events would have unfolded quite differently. But, the UN not only failed to serious pressure the Sri Lankan government, but they also did not have such a system in place that can provide the needed information to the UN community so that they could respond to what was happening on the ground in Sri Lanka (Kurtz, 2015). To make matters worse, the UNSC countries had their own interests, which thus limited their response to what was happening in Sri Lanka (due to their position of LTTE as a terror organization, and their willingness to support the Sri Lankan government) (Kurtz, 2015). 

Throughout the middle and later part of 2009, more and more information was being published by other sources on the human rights violations that were taking place in Sri Lanka. In October of 2009, the United States State Department called for a congressional review based on the various human rights violations in Sri Lanka. Overall, the United Nations seemed to not want to challenge the state too directly, as they worried that this would result in a reduced ability to deliver humanitarian relief. However, their approach did little to positively affect what was transpiring on the ground during the war in Sri Lanka (Kurtz, 2015). 

In 2009, Ban Ki Moon called for an investigation of crimes committed in Sri Lanka. He set up an Internal review Panel (IRP) on what the United Nations’ response was in Sri Lanka. At the head of the IRP was Charles Petrie. Following their investigation, the IRP publicized its findings, and in its information, noted that “the UN’s missteps in Sri Lanka [were] the result of “systematic failure” and also that “the entire system of the United Nations “lacked an adequate and shared sense of responsibility for human rights violations” (in Kurtz, 2015: 11). Petrie went on to note that regardless if the UN’s actions (had they been different) would have resulted in altered behavior by the state, that this ““was not the issue. The point is that the system did not use to the fullest extent its moral force. Even the most aggressive governments have been seen to change their behaviour when confronted by evidence of violations of international humanitarian law. And even if a stronger stance on Sri Lanka would not have altered the outcome, it would have demonstrated the UN’s willingness to stand up for its principles, rather than allow them to be eroded, to the detriment of its future leverage in other situations” (in Kurtz, 2015: 11-12).

From there, after the IRP report, “the Secretary-General tasked the UN system to design an action plan to ensure lessons of the past were fully acted upon and that the UN system meets the responsibilities set by the Charter and Member States where people are at risk of or subject to serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. The result is the Rights up Front Action Plan (RuFAP)” (, ND). This UN Rights Up Front Initiative was a plan that attempts to find ways to ensure that the United Nations is in a better position to deal with protecting issues during conflict. 

The idea behind the UN Human Rights up front initiative is to put in place a better system of monitoring and responding to international crises situations.

Overall, there are six “pillars” for the United Nations Human Rights Up Front Initiative. These are:

  1. Mainstream human rights into all activities of the UN to enhance understanding of the organisation’s human rights obligations;
  2. Provide Member States with candid information about people at risk of, or subject to, serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law;
  3. Ensure coherent action strategies on the ground and leverage the UN system’s capabilities to respond in a concerted manner;
  4. Clarify and streamline procedures at headquarters to enhance communication with the field and facilitate early, coordinated action;
  5. Strengthen the UN’s human rights capacity, particularly through better coordination of its human rights entities;
  6. Develop a common UN system for managing information on serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law.

One of the objectives for the United Nations Human Rights Up Front Initiative has been to better organize and also “[streamline] its early warning and crisis management system” (Kurtz, 2015). In fact, there are three primary objectives of the UN Human Rights Up Front Initiative. These are to alter the entire culture of the United Nations, to set up better reforms in UN operations, and also to work much better with member countries within the United Nations. 

So, among other things, the UN Human Rights Up Front Initiative looks to develop strategies for different countries, throughout the examination of what is taking place within said country. They have tried to do this through planning, and also through a Regional Quarterly Review (RQR). The UN Human Rights Up Front Initiative “Regional Quarterly Review (RQR) is a mechanism through which representatives of UN system regional divisions at UNHQ scan all countries in their region every three months for early warning signs (developmental, political, humanitarian, or explicitly human rights) and then discuss in more detail those situations that are “evolving” and can presage the risk of serious violations and crisis. Where there is a UN country presence, the senior UN official is consulted by the RQR co-chairs (DPA and Regional UNDG) on the situation” (, ND).

Along with this, there is also a Senior Action Group, which is brought together by the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. Under the UN Human Rights Up Front Initiative, this group focuses on analyzing current human rights issues, and also in providing different strategies for the United Nations’ response to ever-changing conditions (, ND).

So, the United Nations leaderships has continued to push to ensure that the Human Rights Up Front Initiative is not merely an empty plan out of a document that will have no influence on the future of UN activity internationally. Rather, the objective is for the UN Human Rights Up Front initiative to allow for strong commitment and cooperation on dealing with crises situations. Interestingly, the report also pointed out that states limit their human rights actions based on interests that they have (whether it is their international relations with a country, an actor, or other geo-political interests (such as alliances)).  

But UN actors through the Human Rights Up Front initiative attempt to find ways to get various UN actors on board to ensure that they are best prepared to deal with anything that comes up in a country which affects humane rights. 

Human Rights Up Front References (ND). Fact Sheet – Rights up Front in the Field. Available Online: 

Kurtz, G. (2015). With Courage and Coherence: The Human Rights up Front Initiative of the United Nations. Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI). July 2015 Policy Paper, pages 1-38. Available Online:

Troszczynska-Van Genderen, W. (2015). Reforming the United Nations: State of Play, Ways Forward. European Parliament. Directorate-General For External Policies. Policy Department. 

UNDG (ND). Human Rights up Front: An Overview, pages 1-4. Available Online:

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