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Opening Plenary Remarks from Dr. Brian Endless

By Dr. Brian Endless, President of the AMUN Bpard of Directors

Remarks from the AMUN 2023 Opening Plenary Session on November 18 2023.

Distinguished representatives, faculty advisors, secretariat and honored guests. Thank you and welcome to AMUN. First – I’m standing up here because I’m a Model UN geek – I was a delegate, secretariat member, I founded several conferences and now I’m also a Faculty Advisor. That means I’ve sat where you are sitting. And Model UN  is the main thing that led me down the path to the work I do now.

Today I’m here to talk about human rights at the UN, including the experience I’ve gained from the humanitarian and advocacy work that I’ve done for the past 15 years or so in the “real” world. This includes advocacy on human rights issues in Rwanda, DRC and across the African continent. I have written human rights briefs for a variety of UN and international agencies and courts, published reports criticizing governments for their actions, and provided expert witness testimonies in several countries about these issues. 

Over the past 3 years, I sadly developed personal experience in humanitarian advocacy when my friend and colleague, Paul Rusesabagina of Hotel Rwanda fame, was kidnapped, tortured and tried on false charges by the Rwandan government that he criticized. (sorry Rwanda…)

Paul was a vocal and regular critic of the human rights abuses of the Rwandan government. For his efforts, he was captured by that government and imprisoned from August 2020 to March of this year. While working for Paul’s release, I learned way too many lessons about how human rights law REALLY works in real time. 

Through my experience with Rwanda and other human rights abuses, I have come to realize that we – Model UNers, college students and the public — sometimes have very false impressions about how the UN really works, and what the UN’s role is in international relations. 

When war crimes happen, or human rights abuses, or even just countries who won’t go along with the program, We want the UN to DO SOMETHING. 

We WANT the UN to be able to solve all problems. We WANT the international community to acknowledge a higher power than can do the “right” thing. But in reality, the UN isn’t that body. The UN doesn’t have a military or enforcement power. At its best and worst, the UN is a collection of member states. The countries of the world coming together, all with their own agendas, all with their own needs and desires, all looking for solutions that work for THEM.

The UN’s second SG, Dag Hammarskjold, has always fascinated me – and I think one of his most famous quotes is appropriate here: 

He said that people need to “stop thinking of the United Nations as a weird Picasso abstraction and see it as a drawing they made themselves.”

We WANT the UN to do everything for everyone, but that’s not the world we have made or the world we live in. Today I’d like to talk to you about how human rights at the UN  really works, and how most of us don’t understand it. The UN is NOT a SOLUTION for human rights issues. The UN is a PART of the PROCESS. We see terrible things in the world and we want to FIX THEM. But most of us don’t understand the UN’s role. The fact is, the UN rarely SOLVES things. Rather the UN is a conduit for diplomacy among countries that can lead to a solution. 

The UN Secretariat and mechanisms also often play the role of “neutral arbiters” – the UN as an organization can point out violations and problems, give legitimacy to humanitarian critics and victims of abuses, and serve as  an incredibly important tool of diplomacy

Let me give you a human rights example from my experience – the names of countries won’t be used out of courtesy to their representatives here today: 

Let’s say a friend of mine is a humanitarian activist who criticizes a dictatorial government for its human rights violations, and then that government kidnaps him. They torture him. And they falsely imprison him. 

The humanitarian is lucky and he has a team to help out. They work to publicize his kidnapping and torture. They take it to the press and they take it to governments and international organizations. Many listen sympathetically, but most governments are reluctant to act until more facts come out. 

So, seeking more support and validation, the humanitarian’s team files reports with human rights groups, and with the UN’s Special Rapporteurs on Torture and on Arbitrary Detention. 

Here’s what happens at the UN: 

The rapporteurs get the report and spend 2-3 months doing an independent investigation to make sure the submission is accurate given the available information. If they determine it is, they then send the report to the accused government, and ask for their response. The government has 9 months to respond. When the alleged human rights abusers don’t respond (they almost never do!), the UN gives them an automatic extension of 3 months, just in case they need more time. Non-response is standard b/c most governments who are accused simply deny everything and refuse to even acknowledge there is an issue. 

When the government still doesn’t respond, the UN makes an automatic judgment in favor of the initial report. So after more than a year of investigation, it is typical for the UN to publish a report that accepts all of the charges, names the country as a human rights abuser, and demands the release of the prisoner. 

So that’s it, right? After more than a year, the UNITED NATIONS said that the dictatorship is a human rights abuser and that the prisoner MUST BE RELEASED? Nice work. Round of applause. Congratulations! I’m sure the dictator will say “oops, I didn’t realize I was so wrong, let me release that prisoner right now.”

Sadly, that’s not the way it works, and this is a HUGE lesson for Model UNers: When the UN calls out a country, it is often in the middle of a process. Not at the beginning – this took 12+ months to get here

When an allegation is made, the UN doesn’t jump in without investigation and just start accusing. And when the investigation is done, the violator doesn’t just give up. 

This is a classic example of where the UN is essential, but not  authoritative – not the end-all/be-all. The UN’s report in this case is an incredibly important practical and moral document. It is not likely to move the accused, BUT: It may move OTHER governments to take action. The GA or Security Council may take this report and start negotiations. 

Most countries are unwilling to challenge others, especially on the worst international violations, without independent evidence from the UN or a similar body.

These UN reports and sometimes resolutions become ammunition for further diplomacy. They are embarrassing to the accused government. But just as importantly they can be embarrassing to its allies and trading partners. Does your government REALLY want to support a known Human Rights Abuser? A country known for war crimes? Or accused of genocide by an international body? 

The UN is often most important in the MIDDLE of a process. They might call out a crisis when it starts. And then UN mechanisms may investigate and provide information and evidence. But in the end it is the member states who need to negotiate WITH THE PARTIES WHO ARE INVOLVED to find an answer. 

As Model UNers, you are going to be tempted to look at an issue, discuss it for a while, and pass a resolution telling everyone what is wrong and how they should fix it. 

This will be tempting, but it’s NOT a good simulation of the UN

First of all, no one listens to the UN when they just pass a resolution. NO ONE. If the UN tries to order a polluter to stop, will they? How about demanding that a wealthy country give aid money? How’s that going to work out? Or, insisting that two countries at war come to a cease fire? Will they listen?  And then there are human rights violators – do they stop because the UN says they are “very bad”? No, they don’t. So how do we fix the problems? WE WORK TOGETHER. 

At its best, the UN is a place where the world comes to a consensus on solving issues. Any issues, human rights, development, health, the environment. Anything. And when the countries of the world come together and they ALL AGREE ON A SOLUTION, it is because they negotiated together. They each followed their self-interest. And they found common ground. 

You don’t solve things by demanding, condemning or ordering. You solve problems – pretty much ALL problems, by talking.

By negotiating. And especially by working with the parties who are the PROBLEM!!! Want to stop a war? Bring the warring parties to the table. What if they refuse? Try harder. And if they still refuse? Find an ally of theirs and convince them to push for negotiations. 

And what if your country has no influence on an issue? 

Then WORK WITH OTHERS, add your voices together, and convince the allies of those warring countries to negotiate a ceasefire. Don’t expect it to be easy. If it was, they probably would have done it already in the “real” world. The work is hard, but that’s what you are here to do. 

UN bodies may start the process by condemning a situation, like the killing of civilians. 

But if you almost never see the UN condemning a COUNTRY. And when they do, it is probably because all negotiations have broken down and there doesn’t seem to be an answer. Condemnation is an absolute last resort, and if you have to go there, you should think of it as a failure.

You are here to simulate the UN. To work together and find solutions to problems. I challenge you this week to not just accuse. 

Don’t just come up with idealistic solutions and skip over the involved parties who are causing problems. If you want to do this well, do the hard work that it takes to bring together the parties that disagree, find the things that have in common, use diplomacy to put on pressure where you can, and if you do a great job, find some new solutions. 

I think you can do it. But don’t expect it to be easy. Thank you very much for your time, and I wish you the very best in your deliberations throughout the week. Welcome to AMUN!

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