For a group of parents in Syria in 2011, this was not an exercise in imagination but a horrifying reality. Their boys were arrested and tortured for the crime of writing anti-government graffiti on the wall of a school. When the parents marched in protest to demand their children's release, security services opened fire on them. When more people came out to protest the killings, the government fired on them again. Soon, the point of no return was reached.
"We were asking in a peaceful way to release the children but their reply was bullets," a relative of one of the boys told a reporter
. "Now we can have no compromise with any security branches."
The Syrian war is just one example of how human rights violations can become a vicious cycle of violence and instability that quickly spirals into all-out war. What began as an act of free expression of the kind Americans take for granted has become a conflict responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of desperate refugees. Nations thousands of miles away have been impacted.
As the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, I've looked at how we can do more to respond to human rights violations before they reach the level of conflict. Traditionally, the United Nations Security Council has been considered the place where peace and security are debated, not human rights. But Tuesday, at the insistence of the United States, for the first time the Security Council took up the connection between human rights and conflict. We debated how widespread human rights violations are a warning sign -- a loud, blaring siren -- that a breakdown in peace and security is coming.
Syria is not alone. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo today, it is no coincidence that reports
of government soldiers and armed groups committing extrajudicial executions of civilians in the Kasais region are occurring at the same time that the security situation appears to be quickly spiraling out of control.
These sorts of allegations demand answers from independent investigations. And when violations are found to occur, the United Nations cannot turn a blind eye. We must engage these violators early and often, in the statements we make and the measures we impose. Human rights violations and abuses suffered by civilians rarely have a happy ending. At best, they drive desperate people from their homes and from their countries. At worst, they radicalize them to take up arms themselves.
In other cases, human rights violations and abuses don't lead to violence down the road, they exist side-by-side with threats to peace and security. In fact, the world's most brutal regimes are also the most ruthless violators of human rights.
In the case of North Korea, human rights abuses literally finance the government's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Political prisoners work themselves to death in coal mines to finance the regime's military. Starvation, sexual violence and slave labor in the prison camps
help supply the North Korean nuclear program.
In Burundi, the government is using human rights violations to stifle dissent. The Burundian government services use torture to crack down on protestors. This has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee to neighboring countries and caused massive regional disruption. A U.N. report
detailed 17 types of torture used by the government, including driving sharpened steel rods into the legs of victims and dripping melted plastic on them.
In fact, there is hardly an issue on the agenda of the Security Council that does not in some way involve human rights. As president of the Council, I've had great support from U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres in driving home the connection between threats to human dignity and threats to peace. I'm grateful as well to my colleagues on the Security Council, who agreed to take this unprecedented step.
The next international crisis could very well come from places in which human rights are widely disregarded. Perhaps it will be in North Korea or Iran or Cuba. We don't know when the next group of desperate people will rise up or when the next gang of violent extremists will exploit human suffering to further their cause. But we know from history that it will happen. And when it does, the United Nations will be called upon to act. We are much better off acting before abuse turns to conflict.
Imagine if we had acted six years ago in Syria. If we learn nothing else from the torture of children, let it be this: Evil is an inescapable fact of life, but the violence that results from human rights violations and abuses is not inevitable. We can choose to learn from history, not doom ourselves to repeat it.