The UN Security Council holds a meeting on November 20, 2019, at United Nations headquarters in New York. © 2019 AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

The security council is the most powerful body of the United Nations. The three elected members from Africa on it for the next two years — Kenya, Niger and Tunisia — should use the considerable power they wield to ensure scrutiny of serious humanitarian and human rights crises affecting the African continent. They should start with Ethiopia and Cameroon

Human Rights Watch and other organisations have documented war crimes and called for a UN inquiry into possible crimes against humanity in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The “A3”, as the African members are called, supported a draft statement voicing concern about the humanitarian situation in Tigray at a closed-door council session, but they can and should go further. They have an opportunity to promote a human rights-centred African agenda by immediately demanding that the council add two African conflicts characterised by widespread rights abuses to its official agenda. 

So far the council has been reluctant to discuss the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region in public, with Russia and China among those arguing that it’s an “internal” Ethiopian matter, not a matter of international peace and security. But the documented involvement of Eritrean troops in massacres of civilians, including children, dispels such arguments. In this case, adhering to the African Union’s mantra of African solutions for African problems should mean galvanising support for an independent, impartial UN inquiry into war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen Hassen has recently met with the AU about a possible investigation led by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on human rights abuses by all sides in Tigray.

However, it was the new United States ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who organised the first public discussion on Tigray to assess conflict-induced starvation in Ethiopia and Yemen. The A3 should have found a way to force this issue into the open at the council long ago. 

Then there’s the ongoing crisis in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon. Since 2017, separatists have targeted civilians, including aid workers, students and teachers, while continuing to enforce a boycott on education. Security forces have also committed a litany of abuses including the killing of civiliansdestruction of propertysexual violence and torture. The A3 should act at the security council to ensure that rights abuses by all parties in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions get the international scrutiny they deserve. Without this scrutiny, the victims’ hopes for justice and accountability may be dashed.

Unlike Cameroon and Ethiopia, South Sudan is on the security council agenda, but it has long been a difficult and occasionally divisive issue. In April, the security council will discuss the renewal of an arms embargo and individual sanctions designations for those responsible for atrocities or undermining the peace deal. But some delegations would like to see the sanctions ended. Niger and Tunisia voted in favor of renewal last year — unlike former African council member South Africa, which joined China and Russia in abstaining. Preserving the arms embargo and other targeted sanctions is critical for the protection of civilians as widespread abuses are still rife in South Sudan.

The African members should also ensure that the security council keeps pressure on the AU and the South Sudanese government to live up to their promise to make the hybrid court for serious crimes a reality. This would signal an important political commitment toward justice for abuses, restore the dignity of victims and ultimately break the cycle of impunity in South Sudan. 

UN member states have various justifications for not adding crises to the council’s agenda. One is that regional organisations are better placed to handle them. But sometimes global solutions are more effective than regional ones. That’s why the world created the UN in 1945 in the wake of the most destructive war humanity has ever known. If regional organisations were doing their job, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Myanmar and China would all be under intense pressure for human rights crimes that may rise to the level of crimes against humanity.

Another excuse is that human rights discussions supposedly belong exclusively at the Geneva-based Human Rights Council and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. But the hundreds of human rights officers attached to UN missions mandated by the security council make it clear that rights are a central part of UN peace and stability operations.

The A3 doesn’t need to take their marching orders from the permanent council members. The A3 can take the lead on African conflicts by highlighting rights abuses and putting pressure on the security council to demand that those responsible for rights abuses are held accountable. This would not only resonate with the AU’s founding principles, but it would strengthen the security council’s peace and security agenda by actively addressing situations before they escalate into cycles of grave abuses and mass atrocities. 

The A3 have power and influence on the security council. They should use it.