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Time for a UN Human Rights Leader

The writer is Editor-in-Chief at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance. He is one of the lead authors for CIVICUS Lens and the 2022 State of Civil Society Report

LONDON, Jul 22 2022 (IPS) - The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights sits at the top of the UN’s human rights system. It’s a crucial role for the victims of violations and the many civil society activists who look to the UN system to set and apply human rights norms, monitor the human rights performance of states and hold rights violators to account.

And there’s a job vacancy. In June, the current High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, announced she wouldn’t be seeking a second term when her current time in office ends in August.

Her announcement was unsurprising: no one has held the role for two full terms. The High Commissioner can find themselves trying to strike impossible compromises between upholding rights, keeping powerful states onside and respecting the UN’s cautious culture.

They can end up pleasing no one: too timid and cautious for civil society, too critical for states that expect to get away with violating rights.

Bachelet is no stranger to the charge of downplaying human rights criticism. Most recently her visit to China attracted huge controversy. Bachelet long sought to visit China, but when the trip went ahead in May, it was carefully stage managed by the Chinese state, which instrumentalised it for PR and disinformation purposes.

Key qualities for the job

Looking ahead, it’s time to think about who should do the job next. The UN system doesn’t have long to identify and appoint Bachelet’s successor, and candidates are already putting themselves forward.

But the process must be inclusive. There’s a clear danger of the selection process leading to the hurried appointment of a candidate acceptable to states because they will not challenge them.

To avoid this, civil society needs to be fully involved. Candidates should face civil society questioning. The criteria by which the appointment is made should be shared and opened up to critique.

Michelle Bachelet, the outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights. Credit: OHCHR

Civil society has plenty of ideas about the qualities the ideal candidate must have. Above all, the holder of the role must be a fearless human rights champion who promises to stand independent of states and not be afraid of upsetting rights-violating states or the UN’s bureaucratic niceties. They should be a public figure and leader prepared to cause a stir if necessary.

This means they should have a strong grounding in international human rights law, crucial at a time when several states are reasserting narrow concepts of national sovereignty as overriding long-established international norms. The UN system needs to get better at defending international laws against this creeping erosion.

The successful candidate should also have a proven background in human rights advocacy and working with the victims of rights violations. The candidate should be fully committed to social justice and to defending and advancing the rights of excluded groups that are most under attack – including women, LGBTQI+ people, Black people, Indigenous people, migrants and refugees, and environmental rights defenders.

They must always be on the side of those who experience rights abuses, acting as a kind of global victims’ representative.

The style they should adopt in office should be one of openness and honesty. They should be willing to work with civil society and listen to criticism.

They should work to embed human rights in everything the UN does, including its work on peace and security, sustainable development and climate change. They should develop the currently underutilised mandate of the office to act on early warning signs of human rights emergencies and bring these to the attention of other parts of the UN to help prevent crises, particularly since the UN Security Council is so often deadlocked.

They should stand up for the UN’s various human rights mandate holders and special experts, and push for them to be able to make genuinely unimpeded visits to states where they can scrutinise rights that are under attack.

While diplomatic skills are important, the approach of backroom negotiations and trade-offs, the style of which Bachelet was accused, should be avoided. This is not a technocratic role. It is about showing moral leadership and taking a stand. The next High Commissioner should not try to negotiate with states like China. They should lead the condemnation of them.

A pivotal moment

This is a potentially pivotal moment. The need has never been greater. Human rights are being attacked on a scale unprecedented in the UN’s lifetime. When it comes to the key civic rights – the rights to association, peaceful assembly and expression – the global situation deteriorates year on year.

Around the world, 117 out of 197 countries tracked by the CIVICUS Monitor now have serious violations of these rights.

If civil society’s calls are not heeded, the danger seems clear: the position could drift into irrelevance, becoming hopelessly compromised and detached from the moral call that should be at its centre.

It’s time for the UN to show it’s serious about human rights, and guarantee that rights are at the core of what it stands and works for. This also means it must revisit the funding situation: the UN human rights system may have well-developed mechanisms but they’re chronically underfunded.

Human rights get just over four per cent of the UN’s regular budget despite it being one of the UN’s three pillars, alongside development and peace and security, making the work highly dependent on voluntary contributions, which are never sufficient.

The next High Commissioner must push for progress in funding and in the realisation of the UN’s Call to Action on Human Rights. To help ensure this, the UN’s human rights commitment must first be signalled by the appointment of a fearless human rights champion to its peak human rights role.

IPS UN Bureau


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