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Race for top human rights post heats up

A full-fledged lobbying fight has broken out at U.N. headquarters for a newly created top human rights post, with the behind-the-scenes race turning into another referendum into how the cautious secretary-general, South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon, will choose to navigate one of the most charged issues his institution regularly confronts. The U.N. General Assembly created the ...

DANIEL JANIN/AFP/Getty Images
DANIEL JANIN/AFP/Getty Images

A full-fledged lobbying fight has broken out at U.N. headquarters for a newly created top human rights post, with the behind-the-scenes race turning into another referendum into how the cautious secretary-general, South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon, will choose to navigate one of the most charged issues his institution regularly confronts.

The U.N. General Assembly created the new assistant secretary-general position in December in an attempt to raise the profile of human rights at U.N. headquarters. The new rights official will serve as a liaison for the Geneva-based office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay (right), in deliberations in New York. U.N. officials hope the appointment will blunt criticism from rights groups that Ban has not promoted human rights aggressively enough since he came into office more than three years ago. It also follows a sustained campaign by rights groups and governments to place a high-level rights advocate at headquarters so he or she can better inject a human rights perspective into the U.N. leadership’s deliberations on the major political crises of the day.

The competition pits Irene Khan of Bangladesh, who stepped down in December as secretary general of Amnesty International, against Heraldo Muñoz, Chile’s U.N. ambassador, and David Scheffer, a former U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes. Joanna Weschler, a Polish pro-democracy activist in the 1980s who served as former U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch, is also in the running.

Human rights organizations and governments are closely monitoring the selection process to see whether Ban will select a strong rights advocate for the post or chose a discreet diplomatic operator who can prevent the post from generating controversy in an organization that includes many countries with poor rights records. Ban has gained a reputation as a cautious diplomat who is averse to publicly confronting countries that abuse their citizens, preferring to pursue a policy of quiet diplomacy to convince them to mend their ways. Some officials following the matter said Ban’s diplomatic temperament makes it unlikely that he would choose to bring an outspoken rights advocate like Khan into his inner circle in New York, particularly since she has clashed with important member states.

Munoz, a former political prisoner under Gen. Augusto Pinochet‘s military government in Chile, has extensive diplomatic experience, and is currently leading a fact-finding mission into the assassination of the late Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto. Latin America governments, including Chile’s, have been active supporters of the new rights office.

Scheffer, a law professor at Northwestern University’s Center for International Human Rights, served as U.S. President Bill Clinton‘s point man on war crimes, playing a role in the establishment of war-crimes tribunals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. A foreign-policy advisor to Barack Obama during his presidential campaign, Scheffer had been a candidate for the U.S. ambassador post in Geneva.

Weschler traces her roots to the Polish “Solidarity” democracy movement, where she served as an interpreter and note taker for Lech Walesa. A former journalist and veteran human rights activist, she is currently director of research for the Security Council Report, an NGO at Columbia University that monitors political developments in the U.N. Security Council. Her candidacy is backed by Poland, which has never held a senior position in the high commissioner’s office.

Others whose names have been mentioned include Carlos Portales, Chile’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva; Marieclaire Acosta, who served as a former Mexican ambassador for human rights and democracy; Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, and Michael O’Flaherty, an Irish legal scholar who serves on the U.N. Human Rights Committee.

The selection panel will be led by Pillay, the South African High Commissioner for Human Rights, her South Korean deputy Kyung-wha Kang, Jessica Neuwirth, an American who currently heads the high commissioner’s liaison office in New York, and Patricia O’Brien of Ireland, the U.N.’s top lawyer. The panel is set to begin interviewing candidates on March 15 and they will present the secretary-general with a short list of three candidates. Ban will make the final decision.

The office of High Commissioner for Human Rights has courted controversy since it was established in the early 1990s. The U.N.’s Egyptian former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali selected a low-key Ecuadorean diplomat, Jose Ayala Lasso, as the U.N.’s first high commissioner in 1994. The appointment of Ayala Lasso, who had previously served under an Ecuadorean military government, infuriated human rights advocates.

Kofi Annan appointed the outspoken former Irish President Mary Robinson, who used the position as a bully pulpit on human rights. But her megaphone diplomacy frequently grated on her former boss, who picked a more conciliatory successor, the Brazilian Sergio Vieira de Mello, the veteran U.N. troubleshooter who would later be killed in a suicide bombing on U.N. headquarters in 2003.

Editor’s note: The original version of this article stated that Navanethem Pillay is “from Asia.” That is incorrect; she’s an ethnic Tamil from South Africa. Turtle Bay regrets the error.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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