Wanted: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
A new United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights is to be appointed, with current office holder Michelle Bachelet announcing her decision to step down. Bachelet has been accused of downplaying human rights criticism in favour of attempting to negotiate with rights-violating states. Her recent visit to China was criticised as being stage-managed by the Chinese government. Looking forward, the UN should consult with civil society on the High Commissioner they would like to see, and through an open and transparent process appoint an experienced human rights champion rather than a career diplomat or politician.
The United Nations (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 human rights 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 human rights violators to account.
And now there’s a job vacancy. In June, the current High Commissioner, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, announced she wouldn’t be seeking a second term when her current time in office ends in August.
Her announcement perhaps wasn’t surprising: no one has held the role for two full terms. The holder of the office can often find themselves at the centre of a storm, trying to strike compromises between upholding rights, keeping powerful states that hold much sway 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 quietly 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.
While Bachelet was able to visit Xinjiang, site of an ongoing industrial-scale campaign of human rights violations, she was not able to speak to any of the region’s roughly one million detained people or their families. Official criticism of China’s abuses was limited, and the main result was an agreement to hold an annual human rights meeting with the government of China, the practicalities of which remain to be defined. Meanwhile the government of China was quick to instrumentalise the visit for PR and disinformation purposes.
Human rights groups denounced the exercise as a whitewash that only enabled the Chinese government to position itself as a good international citizen. Many doubted the implied reasoning that it’s possible for the UN human rights system to negotiate with and win concessions from such an implacably authoritarian regime. Bachelet has also been accused of repeatedly delaying her office’s report on human rights violations in Xinjiang.
Key qualities for the job
Looking ahead, it’s time to give thought to who might do the job next. The UN system doesn’t have long to identify and appoint Bachelet’s successor, and this must give cause for concern. The process needs to be fast and efficient – but it must also be inclusive.
The danger is clear: the selection process may lead to the hurried appointment of a candidate who is acceptable to states because they will not challenge them.
To avoid this happening, 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.
Civil society has some 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 a 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 human 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 natural style of many a career diplomat or politician, 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
Civil society is also calling for the role to be limited to a single term. In principle, this shouldn’t be a big ask, given that most office holders leave after a single term anyway. If formalised, a single-term limit would help stop holders of the role being pressured by powerful states and making compromises in the hope of enjoying a second term.
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 and territories tracked by the CIVICUS Monitor now have serious violations of these rights, and only a tiny proportion of the world’s population - just over three per cent – lives in countries where civic rights are routinely respected.
If civil society’s calls are not heeded, the danger seems clear: the position may drift into irrelevance, becoming hopelessly compromised and detached from the moral call that should be at its centre.
The appointment comes at a time when the priority the UN gives to human rights is being called into question. The UN Secretary-General gave heart to civil society in 2020 when he issued his Call for Action on Human Rights, which promised to put human rights at the centre of his and the UN’s work. This was accompanied by UN-wide guidance on civic space. But it’s not clear what impact these have made, and there’s a danger that good intentions have since been overtaken by events, with the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s war on Ukraine and a growing global food crisis all demanding attention.
And then the Our Common Agenda report on UN reform, published last year, disappointed many in civil society by failing to go far enough, largely ignoring civil society’s calls to open up the UN and make it more democratic – a change that, by increasing civil society engagement, would overnight push the UN to go further on human rights.
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 gets 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 Call to Action on Human Rights. To help ensure this, the UN’s human rights commitment must first be signalled through the appointment of a fearless human rights champion to its peak human rights role.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The UN should work with civil society on the process of appointing a new High Commissioner for Human Rights, including by sharing the selection criteria and encouraging civil society dialogue with potential candidates.
The new High Commissioner should have a strong and active background in defending and advocating for human rights.
The UN should commit to revisiting the funding of its human rights mechanisms.
Cover photo by Jean-Marc Ferré/UN