The position of UN Human Rights Commissioner is often called the UN’s toughest job, and now the search is on for a new one, following Michelle Bachelet’s announcement last month that she wouldn’t seek a second four-year term.
I was a little perplexed, when she revealed her plans, that so many of my colleagues were surprised. A look at the records shows no one in this particular job hangs around too long – in fact, since the post was established in 1993, no high commissioner has served a second four-year term. Mary Robinson stayed for an extra year to preside over the Durban conference on racism, Navi Pillay agreed to a two-year extension at the request of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. Apart from that, and Sergio Viera de Mello, who was tragically killed in Iraq just a year into his term, they have all departed after four sometimes turbulent years.
The reason lies in the nature of the job: of all the top UN roles, human rights is the most tricky. While UNICEF, or the World Food Programme, can allow governments to feel good about themselves by doing nice, uncontroversial things for humanity (feeding the hungry, caring for vulnerable children) UN Human Rights has the unenviable job of pointing out the worst things governments can do: violating the rights of their own citizens.
So what does it take to do the job well? What are the pitfalls to avoid doing it badly? What kind of person should the UN be looking for? Over the next few weeks, SWI swissinfo.ch and Inside Geneva will be taking a deep dive into the subject. My colleague Julia Crawford will focus on Bachelet’s legacy, while in our latest Inside Geneva podcast we feature an in-depth interview with former UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein.
Speak out, don’t be afraid
I talked to Zeid before Bachelet made her announcement, and before Russia invaded Ukraine (an attack that, for many, has highlighted the inherent weaknesses of the UN), but his comments remain uncannily prescient.
Zeid was famous for his outspokenness, calling out right wing “populists and demagogues” and accusing then presidential candidate Donald Trump of spreading “humiliating racial and religious prejudice”.
When I talked to him, Zeid was unapologetic. He firmly believes UN officials, in particular the human rights commissioner, need to show courage, not timidity, when confronting governments. “Rather than you worry about how they may react to your statements, they ought to be worrying about what you might be saying about them,” he told Inside Geneva.
Zeid probably always knew he wouldn’t seek, or be offered, a second term; his readiness to call out even the most powerful world leaders (President Trump) likely ensured some heavyweight opposition from member states. And, as he explains on the podcast, a way to minimise such pressure, and perhaps free up senior UN officials to say and do what they know is right, would be to offer UN human rights commissioners, and even the UN secretary general, just one, six-year term. Do take a listen; his observations on the future not just of UN Human Rights, but of the entire United Nations, are more relevant than ever.
But while Zeid may have been the most high profile “awkward” human rights chief, make no mistake, no one who has held that post has had an easy ride. I’ve known all of them over the past twenty years, and all of them have faced challenges, and pressure, from governments who simply do not want to hear uncomfortable truths.
Mary Robinson came in for severe criticism from the United States and Israel, related to what they claimed was anti-Semitism at the 2001 World Conference against Racism. A draft document submitted to the conference equated Zionism with racism, and, despite the fact this document was voted down, and Robinson had already distanced herself from it, her position, for her remaining time in office, was seriously weakened.
Louise Arbour, who took up the post in 2004, was a hugely experienced lawyer from Canada who had served on the tribunal for former Yugoslavia. Quietly spoken with a dry wit, I remember once trying to interview her in the Palais des Nations, and having to turn the camera off because the peacocks outside were particularly noisy. It being close to Canadian thanksgiving, Arbour wryly suggested a solution (roasting) to keep them quiet.
But she too fell foul of governments; she voiced concerns over human rights in Russia, China, Zimbabwe, and said she feared the US-led “war on terror” was eroding the worldwide prohibition on torture, comments that drew condemnation from Washington.
She too announced her decision not to seek a second term, to the regret of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
Next came Navi Pillay, another woman with a wealth of experience; she had served as president of the International Tribunal for Rwanda. Pillay had the unique knack of delivering even the harshest criticism with a friendly smile and an encouragement to join the multilateral club of nations striving to do better. But she was vilified by Sri Lanka for calling out what were clearly war crimes committed during the civil war with Tamil separatists, and she too angered the US and Israel when she suggested the rights of people living in Gaza could be better protected.
Then came Zeid, and his legendary outspokenness, and after him, Bachelet, who many feel has been Zeid’s polar opposite. Zeid recalls that before he took the job, Human Rights Watch director Ken Roth told him to “come out swinging”. (Ken Roth, by the way, will join Amnesty International’s Agnes Callamard on the next Inside Geneva to discuss their hopes for a new human rights commissioner.) Zeid certainly did come out swinging. Bachelet, a former government leader herself, chose a quieter approach.
What style will the next human rights commissioner adopt? We don’t yet know who the candidates are, but for whoever gets the job, whatever their style and approach, it will be tough.
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