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Opinion

New Human Rights Chief? UN Secretary-General Cannot Afford to Get It Wrong

Fred Carver is Head of Policy & Ben Donaldson, Head of Campaigns, United Nations Association – UK

LONDON, Jun 28 2018 (IPS) - UN Secretary-General António Guterres is about to make one of the most important decisions of his tenure – one that will directly impact communities worldwide: the appointment of the next High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The role is formidable. She or he is tasked with promoting and protecting all human rights for everyone, everywhere. This is an immensely challenging mandate in itself.

Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Al Hussein, the outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Credit: UN

At a time when fundamental human rights are in retreat across the world, including in established democracies, it is even more crucial that a talented and effective individual is appointed, who can rise to the occasion.

The Secretary-General cannot afford to get this wrong. The world is watching.

Since the current post holder – Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein – announced last December that he will not be standing for re-appointment, UNA-UK has worked with partners to encourage a robust, transparent and inclusive process.

We were delighted that the Secretary-General issued a public call for nominations to governments, as well as an explicit invitation to civil society and national human rights institutions to put forward candidates.

We are also pleased that he has committed to advertising widely, to involving external experts in the recruitment process, and that he has encouraged female nominees.

But the Secretary-General is leaving things very late. While we have no doubt there have been vigorous efforts behind the scene, the public call for nominations was only issued on 11 June, with a deadline of one month.

That will leave a mere 51 days between the closing date and the new High Commissioner’s first day in the job. In that time, the candidate will need to be pre-vetted, interviewed, vetted again more rigorously, nominated by the Secretary-General, approved by the UN General Assembly, serve out any notice they have in their current role, move to Geneva and prepare for one of the toughest positions on the planet.

The Secretary-General’s own appointment process benefitted greatly from reforms which brought inclusivity and transparency triggered by pressure from member states and civil society, including the ‘1 for 7 Billion’ campaign of our organisation – UNA-UK.

Technically, the HCHR’s appointment is different – it’s an internal concern for the Secretary-General without meaningful involvement of the Security Council or the General Assembly – but that does not mean the process should be less robust, or that there is no room for public consultation. After all, this is the UN’s principal human rights official.

UNA-UK is therefore pushing to use the limited time available to ensure the call for nominations reaches the widest possible audience, and to campaign for a fair and transparent process.

Our “transparency checklist” shines a light on the process, using metrics such as “are the terms of reference for the interview panel disclosed”, “do women make up at least half the shortlist”, “is a clear timetable for the appointment published” and “are human rights defenders and civil society consulted during the process?”

The future postholder’s mandate will be strengthened if they are seen to have come through a thorough, meritocratic recruitment process. At present, our checklist identifies significant room for improvement on this front.

A lack of transparency will feed the speculation that a small group of powerful states could have undue influence on the process raising the spectre of a compromised appointee.

A robust process, meanwhile, would make the General Assembly’s approval a mandate, rather than a rubberstamp. Including civil society would send a strong message about the UN’s openness to the public, as well as a signal to member states that they are not the organisation’s only stakeholders.

The UN is on its knees financially. The US is looking for cuts and Russia and China calling for those cuts to fall on the UN’s already underfunded human rights mechanisms. This is happening already in peacekeeping, but is unlikely to stop there.

Security Council gridlock between the big powers has resulted in conflicts in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere turning into quagmires. The US has pulled out of the Human Rights Council, which will not make joined up work on human rights across the UN any easier. Now more than ever the UN needs to inspire faith in its representatives from the public and the wider UN membership.

The incumbent high commissioner voiced an ominous rationale for not seeking a second term – that he fears his voice will be silenced and his independence and integrity compromised. The next postholder will need to rise to this formidable challenge – being seen to come through a rigorous and fair recruitment process will help.

 
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