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The Job of Human Rights Chief Isn’t What You Think

Michelle Bachelet has just been tapped as the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights—but her predecessor’s experience should make her wary.

Michelle Bachelet addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 23, 2009.  (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)
Michelle Bachelet addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 23, 2009. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

Human rights advocates rejoiced this week at news that former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet will soon become the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights. Bachelet is an energetic, straight-shooting policymaker and a seasoned U.N. player from her time as the inaugural head of U.N. Women. As she prepares for her new role, however, she should strongly consider what led to the vacancy of such a fiercely coveted job in the first place.

The current high commissioner for human rights, Jordanian Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, announced preemptively last December that he would not seek a second four-year term because he believed the demands of the role were incompatible with securing the support needed for a renewed stint. What’s especially worrying is that the contradiction arose because the bearded, British-accented Zeid—unlike his more circumspect predecessors—has taken the job’s stated mission at face value. The transition from Zeid to Bachelet should prompt a searching reassessment of the role of the high commissioner and a commitment to steps that will make the position more viable and effective going forward.

During his time in office, Zeid won over skeptics who had initially fretted that his roots in a region with a poor rights record, his status as a royal, or his long exposure to the euphemisms and evasions of international diplomacy would undercut his credibility and ardor as the world’s chief human rights advocate. Energetic, ambitious, and telegenic, Zeid made maximum use of his bully pulpit to call out rising autocracy. Unafraid to name names, Zeid made headlines and some enemies—including some of the world’s most powerful governments. Before the 2016 U.S. election, Zeid stood before the U.N. General Assembly and decried “race-baiting bigots who seek to gain, or retain, power by wielding prejudice and deceit at the expense of those most vulnerable.” Zeid would later dub President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media “dangerous,” and the Trump administration’s policy of child separations as “unconscionable.”

But the United States has not been not the only global powerhouse in Zeid’s crosshairs. Citing Russia’s vetoing of Syria-related resolutions, Zeid accused it of complicity in “some of the most prolific slaughterhouses of humans in recent times.” He has blasted China for denying access to human rights monitors and sounded alarm bells over the rise of fascism worldwide.

Approaching four years in office amid a global human rights climate he deemed “appalling,” Zeid concluded that pursuing reappointment “might involve bending a knee in supplication; muting a statement of advocacy; lessening the independence and integrity of my voice.” His concerns about a renewed term were not idle: In fact, none of his predecessors has served the full two four-year terms imagined by the General Assembly when the high commissioner’s post was first created in 1993. Some stepped away voluntarily; others failed to win the support of influential member states. University of Ottawa Professor David Petrasek has called the post a “poisoned chalice—do the job well, and you’re unlikely to be re-appointed.”

Part of the challenge of the high commissioner’s role is that it encompasses several distinct elements that don’t always coexist comfortably. When the high commissioner position was created in the early 1990s, its major innovation was to allow for the addressing of human rights violations wherever they occurred, without the requirement of a resolution or mandate being first agreed on by a U.N. political body. The idea was to ensure that the U.N.’s human rights remit not be hemmed in by powerful member states and their propensity to cover for themselves and their allies. The highest-profile facet of the high commissioner’s job involves speaking out boldly and immediately in the face of egregious human rights violations, putting the weight of the international community behind respect for universal rights and on the side of victims. Zeid’s candor and force in that facet of the role earned him plaudits (including being selected as Foreign Policy’s Career Diplomat of the Year for 2018).

But the U.N.’s human rights arm, which the high commissioner oversees, performs a range of other functions as well. The high commissioner’s staff services more than 55 “special procedures” mandate holders—rapporteurs, independent experts, and working groups on a variety of topics, including everything from torture to living with albinism—that operate on the basis of formal resolutions to monitor and report on specific rights violations in various countries and categories. The Office of the High Commissioner also provides technical assistance to governments through a network of dozens of regional and country offices as well as participation in peacekeeping missions, and it services the U.N. Human Rights Council, a Geneva-based deliberative political body composed of U.N. member states that passes resolutions and periodically reviews the human rights record of every country in the U.N. system. The U.N.’s work in all these areas has ballooned over the years, a reflection both of the need and of the importance of the high commissioner’s role in instantiating human rights.

Yet the U.N.’s human rights operation, and the norms and standards it was created to defend, stand at a crossroads. Globally, indicators including the annual Freedom House survey show that freedom of expression and association are in retreat, with measures of autocracy on the rise in nearly every region of the world. Earlier this summer, the United States withdrew from the U.N. Human Rights Council. While its stated rationale involved the council’s bias against Israel and skewed membership, Washington’s departure from the council will only compound the forum’s flaws. During the Obama administration, the United States invested significant diplomatic resources in the council, invigorating it with an aggressive agenda that highlighted serious human rights crises in Syria, Libya, Sri Lanka, North Korea, and elsewhere. While the Trump administration had neither the credibility nor the inclination to pick up where its predecessor left off, the void created by the absence of U.S. leadership is gaping.

With Zeid’s early departure, some speculated that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres would seek to replace him with a lower-key functionary who would avoid antagonizing the world body’s largest stakeholders. Fortunately, Guterres chose otherwise. Bachelet’s experience waging battles on behalf of the underfunded, under-recognized international agency U.N. Women will serve her well as high commissioner, as the human rights division accounts for less than 4 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget.

But at a time of global human rights crisis, strong personnel isn’t enough. Forceful institutional changes are needed to reinvigorate the U.N.’s human rights arm—both to shore up its relevance and vindicate the principles on which it was founded. Wherever possible, these should be pursued through organizational and bureaucratic channels—a series of efforts to reform the U.N. Human Rights Council via consensus among the 193 member states in the General Assembly have ended in hopeless deadlock.

The following six reforms—ranging from modest, near-term initiatives to long-term ambitions—all deserve serious consideration.

Single Extended Term for the High Commissioner: Federal judges in the United States have lifetime tenure because they are meant to render decisions free from political considerations or the need to curry favor with leaders. As Zeid’s experience illustrates, high commissioners for human rights need to operate with a commensurate degree of independence. When an incumbent widely viewed as courageous and even-handed in calling out abusers concludes that the quest for a second term is incompatible with carrying out his role, the international community should take heed. Having the high commissioner serve for a single six- to eight-year term would offer adequate time to learn the job, enact reforms and restructuring, drive forward an agenda, and rack solid accomplishments without having to worry about campaigning. In the case of incompetence, incapacity, or dereliction of duty, a high commissioner could be removed at the behest of the secretary-general and with the assent of the General Assembly.

Separating Monitoring and Technical Assistance From Naming and Shaming: One of the inherent tensions in the high commissioner’s domain is that the office simultaneously points fingers at serious rights abusers while trying to work alongside some of the very same governments to improve rights protections. The access, trust, and cooperation necessary to provide effective technical assistance can be undermined by public condemnations and expressions of outrage, no matter how justified. One simple way to begin to resolve this tension would be to create a more distinct bureaucratic umbrella for the U.N.’s field activities, including technical assistance. These should not be carried out under the banner of the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner, an entity that by its very name implicates everything the commissioner personally says and does. By creating a new entity—one named U.N. Rights, perhaps—senior field personnel could function more like career ambassadors, charged with keeping relations with host countries smooth enough to get the vital work of concrete human rights training, education, and infrastructure-building done. While the new bureau would still be overseen by the high commissioner, a separation of these functions could safeguard them both.

Human Rights Education for Country Delegations: The U.N.’s 47-member Human Rights Council is made up of member states represented by Geneva-based ambassadors and diplomats who negotiate and vote on many dozens of resolutions during every council session. Composed almost entirely of career foreign service officers from around the world, these emissaries generally have little or no expertise in human rights. Yet, especially for many smaller countries, these designates are often the final decision-makers when it comes to whether to endorse the creation of a new fact-finding mission or call out a human rights abuser. The result is that human rights treaties, norms, and standards can take a back seat to political point-scoring, personal relationships, and optics that detract from the legitimacy of the council. The U.N.’s Geneva-based human rights staff would be well placed to offer a compelling human rights training course for diplomats serving at the council. They could bring in distinguished scholars and experts from around the world, an all-star lineup that would attract top envoys. While not a panacea, a better-informed diplomatic corps in Geneva would strengthen the quality of Human Rights Council debates, foster greater understanding and appreciation for the work of the high commissioner, and even yield positive ripple effects once rotating diplomats moved on to other posts around the world.

Global Human Rights Goals: One of the U.N.’s most notable and surprising successes in recent decades has been the adoption and pursuit of a set of enumerated goals for worldwide socioeconomic development. An initial set of Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000 have been credited with saving the lives of 21 million people and improving the lives of hundreds of millions more by accelerating education and anti-poverty initiatives. An updated set of Sustainable Development Goals set forth in 2015 covers some human rights territory, including access to justice and human trafficking. But with human rights in retreat in many parts of the world, a beefed up, more comprehensive set of tangible and measurable human rights goals, including loosening restrictions on the press, freeing political prisoners, guaranteeing judicial independence, and securing the rights of migrants, women, and other groups could breathe new life into the U.N.’s human rights agenda. Winning agreement on a common global set of human rights objectives might seem like an impossible mission, but the initial development goals effort once seemed like pie in the sky too. The meetings and conferences necessary to elaborate and negotiate such goals would themselves force countries to examine their own records and engage with civil society.

A Big Annual Human Rights Report: The U.N.’s human rights office should commission an annual or biennial review of human rights practices, along the lines of the U.N.’s Human Development Report, published annually by the U.N. Development Programme. That report, launched in 1990 by two renowned economists, is authorized by the U.N. but prepared independently. The U.N. General Assembly has recognized it as “an independent intellectual exercise” and “an important tool for raising awareness about human development around the world.” It catalogues trends and progress country by country, providing a vital, internationally legitimized measure of whether they are providing for their people. A comparable human rights index could similarly serve as both a barometer and a catalyst, spurring nations to want to improve their standing in relation to others. While existing annual reports by human rights organizations including Freedom House and Human Rights Watch facilitate comparisons both over time and across countries, the work of U.S.-based organizations lacks the global legitimacy that the U.N. could provide, which is vital to resisting claims that human rights are a Western set of values.

Zeid’s no holds barred approach to his role as commissioner sounded an essential note of truth at a time of retrenchment on human rights worldwide. Bachelet is well placed to use the foundation of fearless outspokenness to expand and build upon the reach of the U.N.’s human rights operation, making it an even more effective and essential bulwark against the forces of authoritarianism and abuse.

About the Author

Suzanne Nossel is executive director of the Pen American Center and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.

Suzanne Nossel is executive director of the Pen American Center and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.

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