Outgoing U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay rebuked the U.N. Security Council on Thursday for putting short-term geopolitical concerns and narrowly-defined national interests ahead of stopping mass atrocities and grave breaches of global peace and security.
"I firmly believe that greater responsiveness by this council would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives," Pillay told the 15-member body during her final briefing after six years as the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Her term ends on Aug. 30.
Pillay spoke at a meeting where the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution promising more aggressive efforts to prevent conflicts.
British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, president of the council for August, said the body needed to "to switch from a culture of reaction to a mindset of conflict prevention."
However, the resolution said little about the political differences that often paralyze the Security Council, where sharp divisions between veto-wielding members Russia and the United States have often thwarted action on Syria and Ukraine.
Pillay touched on the problem in her remarks.
"Short-term geopolitical considerations and national interest, narrowly defined, have repeatedly taken precedence over intolerable human suffering and grave breaches of — and long-term threats to — international peace and security," she said.
She enumerated crises in Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Gaza, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan and said they "hammer home" the international community's failure to prevent conflict.
Pillay pointed to Syria’s conflict saying it "is metastasizing outwards in an uncontrollable process whose eventual limits we cannot predict."
And she slammed the council for its consistent lack of response to slow-burning flashpoints. "None of these crises erupted without warning. They built up over years — and sometimes decades — of human rights grievances," said Pillay, a South African jurist.
She suggested the Security Council come up with possible new responses to rights violations, such as deploying rapid, flexible and resource-efficient human rights monitoring missions that would be limited in time and scope.
Pillay criticized the use of veto power on the Security Council saying "to stop action intended to prevent or defuse conflict is a short-term and ultimately counter-productive tactic."
Her successor, Jordan's Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, who will start his four-year appointment next month, could also informally brief the Security Council once a month in a bid to strengthen early warnings of potential crises, she said.
Pillay also recommended building on the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty, which aims to regulate the $85 billion arms industry and keep weapons out of the hands of rights abusers and criminals.
"States parties could agree that where there are concerns about human rights in states that purchase arms, one condition of sale would be that they accept a small human-rights monitoring team," she said.
The treaty is due to enter into force once 50 countries have presented proof of ratification to the United Nations. At least 31 countries have so far ratified the treaty.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that even modest, early U.N. action could be important when it had full support from the Security Council.
"However, when there is limited consensus —when our actions come late and address only the lowest common denominator — the consequences can be measured in terrible loss of life, grave human suffering and tremendous loss of credibility for this council and our institution," Ban told the council.