Posts Tagged ‘UN High Commissioner’

Another one bites the dust…the future of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

February 13, 2018

David Petrasek, Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, wrote on 8 February 2018 an interesting piece under the title: “Another one bites the dust—what future for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights?” (Openglobalrights.org) and wondered whether the early departure—yet again—of a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights doesn’t suggests it’s time to re-think the office’s priorities and strengthen its mandate (rather than more activism).

After the announcement in December 2017 by Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan that he would not seek a second term as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, I wrote that “while most high level United Nations officials serve as long as their mandate allows, no single Human Rights Commissioner has served a full four-year second term” [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/12/22/bound-to-happen-but-still-high-commissioner-zeid-announces-he-will-not-seek-second-term/].

The piece is worth reading and poses well the difficult dilemma:

Petrasek states: Zeid’s untimely departure therefore begs the question—is the job do-able? In fulfilling the mandate, must the UN’s top human rights official so annoy governments that they cut short her or his tenure? Is that a price worth paying? It would certainly strengthen the High Commissioner’s position if they were given a single six or seven-year term, getting out from under the Damoclean sword of renewal at four years.

Zeid has been a prominent and eloquent spokesperson in defense of human rights,..Clearly, this won him few friends among powerful countries, the US included. But it’s less clear that his outspokenness made much difference. It’s worth asking: should the High Commissioner prioritize speaking out even if the cost of doing so is to lose the political support necessary to fulfil her or his full mandate? The High Commissioner is not only the UN’s human rights conscience. She or he is also tasked with co-ordinating the UN’s myriad human rights activities, pursuing an active—and perhaps less public—human rights diplomacy, and leading efforts to reform often overlapping, outdated and cumbersome UN procedures.

The idea for a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was put forward by civil society in the lead up to the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993. Many functions were suggested for inclusion in the High Commissioner’s mandate, but the non-negotiable core demand was simple—the High Commissioner must have an overarching duty to promote and protect human rights anywhere.The High Commissioner was, therefore, a giant leap forward—personified in the post was the UN’s general human rights mandate, grounded in the UN Charter. She or he was now able to act whenever and wherever rights were at risk.

This general protection mandate has produced real results: High Commissioners have put neglected crises on the global agenda; there’s been a much-needed shift to the field of human rights staff, and the High Commissioner has amplified the voices of local human rights defenders.

Yet, today the High Commissioner’s voice is often only one amongst many. There are almost 60 independent human rights monitors (“Special Rapporteurs”) .. in 1993, there were barely a dozen. Similarly, today UN human rights inquiries are investigating crimes against humanity and war crimes in five countries, and eight investigations have concluded in the past decade. The Council regularly meets in emergency session, there is an International Criminal Court, and the UN Security Council often (if inconsistently) includes human rights concerns in its resolutions, a rare occurrence in 1993. The Security Council has also authorized the deployment of over 1,000 human rights staff to UN peacekeeping missions. They too issue reports and statements of concern, as increasingly does the UN Secretary-General.

In short, the gap identified in 1993 has narrowed considerably, at least as concerns the UN pointing a finger at human rights abusers.

But other gaps remain and widen. The growth in UN human rights mechanisms has not been accompanied by an obvious growth in their efficiency or effectiveness. Indeed, multiple and overlapping procedures are weighing down what should be a nimble and responsive system. Further, although at least since the late 1990s High Commissioners have prioritized putting staff in the field, more than half remain in Geneva and New York; in contrast, the UN Refugee Agency has 87% of its staff in the field. This imbalance seriously undermines the Office’s ability to pursue an effective human rights diplomacy. And the relative weakness and underfunding of the High Commissioner’s Office means it is hard-pressed to co-ordinate UN system-wide approaches. It has been over a decade since it has proposed any significant reforms.

The conclusion might seem obvious—the High Commissioner should spend less time speaking out and more time strengthening and reforming both his Office and the UN human rights system. A less public profile, in this view, might produce less resistance to much-needed reform—diplomacy succeeding where activism fails.

Flickr/UN Geneva (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0-Some Rights Reserved)


Of course, it’s not that simple. Many states are reluctant to see the UN’s human rights efforts strengthened, regardless of what the High Commissioner is saying or not. And though a more ‘diplomatic’ approach might suit some states, it will at the same time alarm civil society and activists who look to the High Commissioner for leadership. Even if states might ignore denunciations from Geneva or New York, an activist High Commissioner undoubtedly gives comfort and support to beleaguered human rights defenders.

There are no easy answers to the question posed. Perhaps it’s simply unfortunate but necessary that the High Commissioner’s mandate is a poisoned chalice—do the job well, and you’re unlikely to be re-appointed. However, given the many changes since 1993, it is worth reflecting more deeply on how this mandate might be credibly pursued so that High Commissioners depart when the job is done, not when states determine their time is up.

A single, lengthier term is one proposal, but others might be considered, including better co-ordination between the High Commissioner and the Council’s independent experts to leverage more diplomatic space. The current High Commissioner will depart in August and the key players are already politicking to appoint a successor. If she or he is not to meet a familiar fate, then now is the time to re-think priorities and strengthen the mandate.

 

(David Petrasek was formerly Senior Policy Director and Special Adviser to the Secretary-General of Amnesty International. David has worked on human rights and conflict resolution issues with the UN, foundations and NGOs for over 25 years.)

https://www.openglobalrights.org/another-one-bites-the-dust-what-future-for-the-un-high-commissioner-for-human-rights/?lang=English

New High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, opens Human Rights Council

September 8, 2014

UN HCHR Al HusseinOn 8 September 2014 the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, addressed for the first time the Human Rights Council, and many will have been listening for clues about where he stands on key issues, how ‘activist’ he is likely to be etc. As the speech was rather long and covered a huge variety of issues, it is not easy to draw any conclusions yet. The fist half addressed issues of war and violence and in particular the humanitarian crises of today.

The role of the individual is beautifully worded: “courage is the first human virtue, revered the world over, the very virtue we value the most as human beings. The courageous individual is not he or she who wields great political power or points a gun at those who do not – that is not courage.  The courageous individual is he or she who has nothing to wield but common sense, reason and the law, and is prepared to forfeit future, family, friends and even life in defence of others, or to end injustice.  In its most magnificent form, the courageous individual undertakes this exertion, without ever threatening or taking the life of someone else, and certainly not someone defenceless.”..”the Takfiris [IS] who recently murdered James Foley and hundreds of other defenceless victims in Iraq and Syria – do they believe they are acting courageously? “…

Navi Pillay was one of the greatest senior officials the UN has ever had, and one of the most able, formidable High Commissioners for Human Rights. That she could annoy many Governments – and she did – was clear; but she believed deeply and movingly in the centrality of victims, and of those who are discriminated against. They needed her vocal chords, her lungs and her pen, and she made everyone listen. I pledge to continue along the same path: to be as firm, yet always fair; critical of states when necessary, and full of praise when they deserve it.”

“A ministerial-level meeting will be held in New York on 25 September, on the need for a code of conduct to be adopted by the permanent members of the UN Security Council regarding use of veto, in situations where atrocities are ongoing and where those facts are well founded.  This is not a call to have the UN Charter rewritten, but a call for the permanent members to exercise a moratorium in very specific circumstances involving atrocity crimes.  I applaud the Government of France for taking the lead over this, and thank it for inviting me to participate on the 25th.  When the veto is exercised for the sole purpose of blocking action by the Security Council, with no alternative course of action offered, and when people are suffering so grievously ­– that is also a form of cruelty.”

After briefly describing his priorities:

  1. halt the increasingly conjoined conflicts in Iraq and Syria. In particular, dedicated efforts are urgently needed to protect religious and ethnic groups, children – who are at risk of forcible recruitment and sexual violence – and women, who have been the targets of severe restrictions.
  2. ensure accountability and stop impunity
  3. to take a step back and look at how and why these crises erupted,

the UN High Commissioner touched on a number of current situations and mentioned the importance of the different mechanisms and bodies. Finally he came to the civil society with the following words:

But the work done by OHCHR, by the Special Procedures, by Treaty Bodies, this Council itself, and indeed, by Member States, could never be achieved without the greater efforts of civil society actors. We need their continuing support and contributions to realise progress. I encourage the Council to strengthen its constructive engagement with civil society actors, and to ensure that their voices can be raised safely and without reprisals.  Freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are rights that enable people to share ideas, form new thinking, and join together with others to claim their rights. It is through the exercise of these public freedoms that we make informed, considered and intelligent decisions about our development. To restrict them undermines progress. We must acknowledge the value of civic contribution, build the capacity of marginalised voices, ensure a place at the table for civil society actors, and safeguard their activities – including the activities of those who cooperate with this Council, its Special Procedures and Commissions of Inquiry. I take this opportunity to echo the Secretary-General’s condemnation of acts of reprisal against individuals by reason of their engagement with the United Nations.”

At the end of this speech, he paid significant attention to the issue of migration:  “The treatment of non-nationals must observe the minimum standards set by international law. Human rights are not reserved for citizens only, or for people with visas. They are the inalienable rights of every individual, regardless of his or her location and migration status. A tendency to promote law enforcement and security paradigms at the expense of human rights frameworks dehumanises irregular migrants, enabling a climate of violence against them and further depriving them of the full protection of the law.”

See full text at: Media Centre.