“Hearing the gates close was probably the loudest sound I’ve ever heard.”
It’s 2014. South Sudan. The world’s youngest nation is torn apart by conflict. And as usual, civilians are caught in the middle. Villages are destroyed, men are arrested, women and girls are raped. Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing the violence.
Ken Payumo is in charge of the UN compound in Bor, a strategic city north of the capital. The compound is sheltering 12,000 people seeking refuge from the fighting. In front of the building, Ken watches a senior government official approach, accompanied by around 80 armed soldiers.
They want to know if the people inside are pro-government or supporters of the rebels. They want to enter the compound.
Ken has a difficult decision to make.
He tells the group they are welcome to enter, but only without their weapons. The offer does not satisfy the men. As the soldiers started to push past him, Ken gives the order to close the gates of the compound, with himself on the outside, unarmed.
Ken’s decision was made in an instant. But its roots go back years and extend halfway around the world.
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
In the fall of 2008, Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war is entering its grim final stages. The government launches a major offensive against the rebel Tamil Tigers in the north of the country. Authorities warn they cannot guarantee the safety of UN staff in the war zone.
UN leaders have a difficult choice to make.
The danger was not hypothetical. In November 2007, UN offices in the safe zone sustained damage from Government-initiated air strikes. And the attacks were growing in intensity. To ensure the safety of staff, the UN chose to evacuate the rebel-controlled area.
This decision is one of many that have come under scrutiny in the aftermath of the conflict. Critics say the UN’s withdrawal cleared the way for a merciless military onslaught in which tens of thousands of civilians were killed, with no one to bear witness.
An internal inquiry into the UN’s actions recognized the commitment of UN employees, international staff and Sri Lankan nationals, who worked determinedly under difficult circumstances. But the report concluded that there was “systemic failure”.
Under pressure from the government and facing the threat of expulsion, some UN staff were reluctant to tell the world about mounting civilian casualties, the report said. In order to preserve their ability to continue humanitarian work in the country, UN staff held back on speaking out more forcefully.
While acknowledging the difficult trade-offs in such circumstances, the UN vowed that the mistakes made in Sri Lanka should never be repeated.
Out of this pledge came the Human Right up Front initiative. Then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the initiative in 2013 to ensure that protecting human rights is at the centre of all UN action and understood to be the responsibility of all UN personnel.
Human Rights up Front sets an imperative that UN staff take timely and effective action to prevent and respond to serious violations of human rights or humanitarian law.
It introduces three types of changes to make this possible:
Cultural change to instil the idea that protecting human rights is part of all UN staff’s job
Operational changes to bring the UN’s peace and security, human rights and development actions into alignment
Changes in the way the UN works with Member States to make sure they are aware of emerging problems and engaged from early on
Ban Ki-moon’s successor has continued and built on this commitment. “Human rights must be weaved into United Nations action at all levels,” António Guterres said in remarks to the UN Human Rights Council. “It is why I am working – in the spirit of Human Rights up Front – to ensure that the United Nations places defending and promoting human rights at the core of all our efforts.”
It was only a month after the launch of the Human Rights up Front initiative that Ken Payumo found himself confronting a group of armed men demanding entry into the UN compound in Bor, South Sudan. Many thoughts raced through his mind as he heard the decisive thud of the compound gates closing behind him.
Looking back, Ken remembers thinking about the Human Rights up Front initiative. Mostly he thought about the duty he had to the 12,000 people who had come to the UN in search of safety. He thought about the UN’s commitment to all the South Sudanese people and to people everywhere.
“We had all these people depending on us, depending on the UN, inside the compound.” he says. “This was their last refuge. There was nowhere else. This point was not negotiable.”
After much back-and-forth, the soldiers understood that Ken would not back down. They climbed into their vehicles and drove away.
On the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN is celebrating the progress that has been achieved on human rights all around the world. At the same time, it is clear that the promise of the Declaration is yet to be realized fully. Too many people still face violations – even complete denial – of their human rights.
For the UN, there will be many more difficult choices. But the organization is committed to upholding the spirit of the Declaration and the Human Rights up Front initiative. The objective is clear and non-negotiable: to guarantee everyone a life free from want and free from fear.