On June 14, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2686 on “Tolerance and International Peace and Security,” sponsored by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the United Kingdom. The resolution, brought forward under the rubric of emerging threats to international peace and security, centers on combating intolerance, hate speech, racism, and other forms of extremism as threat multipliers in situations of conflict.

Yet despite its emphasis on nonviolence, tolerance, and international cooperation, the language of the resolution itself raises human rights concerns. Broad and vaguely defined references to fighting “extremism” risk playing into the hands of repressive regimes, who often frame domestic critics and rights defenders as “extremist” threats to national security. Moreover, in its emphasis on “human fraternity,” the resolution is emblematic of a broader push among some autocratic states to reframe universal human rights frameworks in ways that place greater emphasis on state sovereignty and cultural and religious traditions.

The Origins of Resolution 2686

The adoption of Resolution 2686 followed a high-level briefing “The Value of Human Fraternity in Promoting and Sustaining Peace,” one of the signature events of the UAE’s June presidency of the Security Council. Both build on a longer line of efforts by the UAE to promote “human fraternity” as an umbrella term for the celebration of religious freedom, religious tolerance, and intercultural dialogue.

In 2019, the country hosted an international “Human Fraternity Meeting,” organized by the Muslim Council of Elders—an international organization based in the UAE that seeks to bring together Muslim scholars, experts, and dignitaries from different parts of the world. The meeting led to a statement on “human fraternity for world peace and living together” signed by both Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar At Tayyeb. In 2020, the UAE, together with Bahrain, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia tabled a United Nations General Assembly resolution— adopted by consensus—that proclaimed Feb. 4 as the “International Day of Human Fraternity” and “[a]cknowledge[ed] that tolerance, pluralistic tradition, mutual respect and the diversity of religions and beliefs promote human fraternity.”

The United Kingdom’s involvement in the resolution, on the other hand, can be traced back to the British government’s emphasis on the protection of religious freedom and religious minorities, which since 2019 has emerged as a key foreign policy priority of the ruling Conservative Party. In 2021, for instance, the United Kingdom organized an informal Security Council meeting on “Religion, Belief and Conflict;” in 2022, it hosted an International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief in London.

In its final version, Resolution 2686 recognizes that hate speech, racism, and related forms of intolerance and “acts of extremism” can contribute to the “outbreak, escalation and recurrence of conflict,” and urges states and international and regional organizations to publicly condemn violence, hate speech and extremism motivated by discrimination.

Negotiations in the weeks leading up to June 14 were marked by significant disagreement among member states of the Security Council, with several members criticizing the resolution’s lack of emphasis on human rights protections. In response to those concerns, earlier drafts were revised to add more references to international human rights norms, including a direct mention of the right to freedom of expression. An earlier requirement for an annual report on the resolution’s implementation by the U.N. Secretary-General was also ultimately scrapped.

Yet despite these revisions, the final text of the resolution leaves room for concern.

Broad References to “Extremism”

For one, the resolution repeatedly uses the word “extremism” without any further qualifier—not even the common reference to “violent extremism.” Proponents of the text argued that states need to address extremism before it becomes violent. Yet human rights experts have long pushed back against overly broad language about extremism and terrorism in multilateral statements and resolutions as well as domestic legislation, noting that such language is easily abused by repressive regimes to target domestic critics and restrict citizens’ freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Observing this global pattern, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism Fionnuala Ní Aoláin has repeatedly deplored the lack of comprehensive definition of terrorism and of violent extremism in Security Council resolutions and the consequent “hard-wiring of misuse into counter-terrorism measures taken by States around the globe.”

Rights advocates have criticized the UAE’s own counterterrorism law for precisely this same reason. The law defines “terrorist outcomes” so broadly that even peaceful dissent could potentially be labeled terrorism. For instance, the country continues to detain at least 60 rights defenders and dissidents arrested for their pro-democratic activism, many of which have already completed their sentences yet remain in detention for posing a continued “terrorist threat.”

The ability of governments to define extremism in self-serving ways was also evident at the June 14 high-level briefing that preceded the adoption of Resolution 2686. There, the representative of the Russian government, Vasily Nebenzya, llustrated the need to counter hate speech by citing threats of “russophobia” in Ukraine that he said are “taking place with the consent of the Kyiv regime.” The representative offered no acknowledgment of Russia’s ongoing war of territorial aggression against Ukraine.

Given the precedent of states using the fight against terrorism and violent extremism as a pretext to restrict the activities – and even existence – of civil society and political opposition, an even broader reference to “extremism” risks giving carte blanche to autocratic or democratic backsliding regimes to crack down on those perceived as challenging their ideological and political agenda, even when those actors are using peaceful means of protest.

Viewed through this lens, the U.K. government’s sponsorship of the resolution stands in stark contrast to its stated commitment to work through the multilateral system to “strengthen and raise global standards for Human Rights Defenders,” and advance a “holistic approach to addressing the drivers of repression and of restrictions to civic space.”

A Challenge to Human Rights Norms?

In addition to broad references to extremism, the resolution’s emphasis on “human fraternity” also raises concerns for gender-equality advocates. Not only does the term itself, rooted in the Latin word for “brother,” have gendered connotations: it is also associated with conservative religious actors who are actively opposing progress on gender equality in multilateral institutions. Over the past decades, an informal alliance spanning culturally conservative autocracies, backsliding democracies, and religious institutions, has taken increasingly concerted action to challenge previously agreed upon gender-equality language in multilateral fora. Their efforts have focused on opposing language related to sexual and reproductive health and rights, sexual minority rights, sex education, and references to gender equality more broadly in multilateral documents.

In parallel, however, these same actors have also invested in building an alternative normative framework centered around state sovereignty, religious freedom, and “traditional family values,” rather than individual human rights. For instance, since 2015, the Group of Friends of the Family has brought together conservative states to advocate for the rights of the “natural family” at the United Nations. In 2020, the United States under the Trump administration further launched the Geneva Consensus Declaration, a strategic document aimed at building an international coalition against abortion rights and for traditional family values signed primarily by illiberal and authoritarian governments (including the UAE). The Holy See has played an important role in these efforts, often using its observer status at the United Nations to build alliances with conservative civil society groups and governments, including with religious autocracies.

Although Resolution 2686 itself is not about gender equality, the concept is closely associated with the same circle of conservative religious actors. The 2019 “Human Fraternity Declaration,” signed by Pope Francis and Grand Imam of al-Azhar El Tayyeb, explicitly condemns abortion alongside genocide, forced displacement, and acts of terrorism. A representative of the Holy See co-chairs the Higher Committee on Human Fraternity launched by the UAE, and Pope Francis spoke at the high-level U.N. Security Council briefing on human fraternity that preceded the resolution. A direct reference to the 2019 declaration in an earlier draft of Resolution 2686 was removed from the resolution following pushback by some Security Council members on its anti-abortion connotations. Yet the exact meaning of “human fraternity” remains undefined in the text, and efforts to include stronger language on women’s rights and the Women, Peace and Security agenda were rejected by Russia and China in the negotiations.

At best, Resolution 2686 thus includes excessively vague language that fails to strengthen protections for human rights defenders and could be abused by governments to justify crackdowns on domestic critics. At worst, however, the document could be read as an implicit endorsement of a reactionary movement to redefine and relativize international human rights norms and obligations based on references to national tradition, religion, and culture.

IMAGE: Noura bint Mohammed Al Kaabi (centre), Minister of State of the United Arab Emirates and President of the Security Council for the month of June, chairs the June 14, 2023 United Nations Security Council meeting on maintenance of international peace and security, with a focus on the values of human fraternity in promoting and sustaining peace. At left is Secretary-General António Guterres. (via the United Nations)