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Who Should Be the Next UN High Commissioner for Human Rights?

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The Debate | Opinion

Who Should Be the Next UN High Commissioner for Human Rights?

Michelle Bachelet failed to do her job as the world’s leading human rights advocate. Tapping the right person to succeed her is a crucial decision.

Who Should Be the Next UN High Commissioner for Human Rights?
Credit: Flickr/ sanjitbakshi

Michelle Bachelet brought disrepute and discredit to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

While she spoke out on many vital human rights concerns around the world – as is her job – she sold out to one of the world’s worst human rights violators, the Chinese Communist Party regime. Her visit to China early this year was ill-judged, poorly timed, badly executed, and gave Beijing a propaganda coup. Her extraordinary whitewashing of the Chinese regime’s record – from the genocide of the Uyghurs to atrocities in Tibet, from the dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy to the crackdown on civil society and religious freedom in mainland China – was shameful. Her continued failure to publish her office’s report on Xinjiang is disgraceful.

Her decision not to seek a second term is welcome, and her departure on August 31 will come not a moment too soon.

The question is, who should succeed her and what should be the process for ensuring that the United Nations appoints the right person to this vital role? Applications closed today, and with the number of human rights crises in the world piling up – from Ukraine to Myanmar, North Korea to Nigeria – there is a need to appoint a new High Commissioner quickly. But it is also essential to make the right appointment.

What is needed is an individual who can restore the credibility of – and trust in – the role of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. The High Commissioner is supposed to be the world’s leading human rights advocate, the moral conscience of the international rules-based order. They are meant to be an advocate, not a diplomat or a politician. Their role is to shine a light on human rights violations and make recommendations – for the diplomats and politicians to then negotiate and implement. Bachelet’s problem was that she confused these roles and tried to be more of a diplomat than the watchdog she should have been.

To find the right person, we need a process that is consultative, transparent, and competitive. As the United Nations Association in the U.K. has said, it should be a “fair, open and inclusive appointment process.” Civil society should be engaged and consulted.

At the end of June, 63 human rights organizations published an open letter to the U.N. secretary-general, calling for the appointment of someone who is of “high moral standing and personal integrity, and who is independent and impartial and possesses competency and expertise in the field of human rights.” It requires, they said, “a human rights champion who is courageous and principled” – and a process that is “open, transparent and merit-based.” They are right.

There are any number of strong candidates who could be suitable. Someone who has served with distinction as one of the U.N. Special Rapporteurs, for example.

South Korean academic Yanghee Lee, who was special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar from 2014-2020 and previously chair of the Committee on the Rights of the Child and chair of the Meeting of Chairpersons of Human Rights Treaty Bodies, would be an excellent contender.

Former Indonesian Attorney-General Marzuki Darusman, who served as special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, a member of the Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity in North Korea, and chaired the Independent International Fact-finding Mission on Myanmar, would be another possibility.

Ahmed Shaheed, former foreign minister of the Maldives who was a special rapporteur on human rights in Iran and then on freedom of religion or belief, would be yet another.

Or it could be someone from outside the U.N. system. There would be few better choices than the director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Initiative, top British lawyer Baroness Helena Kennedy, QC.

I have no idea whether any of the four individuals named above have applied or would want the job. But the point is, it should be someone of their ilk. Someone with the clout and credibility that comes from years of leading frontline human rights advocacy, and a proven fearlessness about speaking the truth. It should not be another former politician unless they are one with an exemplary track record of championing human rights.

We have been fortunate until recently with some excellent High Commissioners for Human Rights. All of Bachelet’s predecessors were people who took a courageous stand and led some groundbreaking initiatives. Navi Pillay initiated a U.N. inquiry into crimes against humanity in North Korea. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called for an International Criminal Court probe into the atrocity crimes suffered by Myanmar’s Rohingya. Louise Arbour, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and Mary Robinson were all distinguished human rights champions.

Let’s have someone of their stature and experience, someone with political and diplomatic nous, legal expertise and human rights experience who has the moral courage to recognize that the role of the High Commissioner for human rights is to call out human rights violations – and leave the diplomacy and politics to the diplomats and politicians. It is vital, for the credibility of the U.N. at this time of global crisis, that we get this one right.