The Toughest Job in the UN: The High Commissioner for Human Rights

The role of the United Nations (UN) human rights chief is under intense international scrutiny after the long-awaited release of a strong report on grave human rights violations in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. On 8 September, a new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), Volker Türk, was appointed to assume the role after Ms. Bachelet’s four-year term ended at midnight on 31 August 2022.

The transition to the new High Commissioner offers an opportunity to reflect on what has been described as the UN’s toughest job, some even wondering if it is impossible. The High Commissioner is called to implement a core mandate of the UN – human rights around the world – on a frayed shoe-string budget comprising a mere three percent of the regular UN budget, the rest of which is devoted to the UN’s other core mandates, peace and security and development.

Thirteen minutes to midnight: A strong report asks China to curb violations in Xinjiang

Just thirteen minutes before Michelle Bachelet’s term ended at midnight on 31 August, she released a thoroughly-researched report on the situation of Uyghur people in China’s Xinjiang region. Until that moment, human rights advocates, who had awaited the report for many months, had all but given up hope that she would make good on her promise to release it.

Since 2018, Ms. Bachelet’s Office (the OHCHR) had unsuccessfully sought access to the Xinjiang region to verify mounting reports of grave human rights violations against Uyghur people. In September 2021, Ms. Bachelet announced her intention to release a report. In March 2022, China finally agreed to a “friendly” visit but refused an investigation. After her highly circumscribed and much-criticized visit in May 2022, China lobbied intensely to prevent the release of the High Commissioner’s report.

The OHCHR’s August 31st assessment includes well-documented allegations by numerous reliable sources that rights violations in the Xinjiang region may amount to crimes against humanity. China immediately denounced the report categorically as “lies,” saying that the report “wantonly smears and slanders China and interferes in China’s internal affairs,” in violation of the principle of “non-politicization in the field of human rights.”

Follow up of the assessment and its recommendations will be left to the new High Commissioner, Volker Türk, who was nominated by the UN Secretary General on 7 September 2022. On 8 September Mr. Turk’s appointment was confirmed by consensus of the General Assembly, albeit with China, Russia and Iran “voicing dissent on the work of the High Commissioner” and warning that human rights work must be conducted with “objectivity, impartiality, non-selectivity, and non-politicization.” This mantra is often repeated in UN meetings by these and other States to deflect legitimate criticism by UN human rights bodies. Mr. Türk takes up his role on 17 October 2022.

The complex mandate of the High Commissioner

Allegations of grave and systematic abuses in Xinjiang provide a vivid showcase for examination of the role of the High Commissioner. However, the situation in China is just one of many pressing human rights crises the new High Commissioner inherits, along with the global impact of climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, poverty and inequality, atrocities, and dangerous conflicts on several continents.

During her term, High Commissioner Bachelet advocated for an end to serious abuses, including racist violence and attacks on the international rule of law by the United States (US), Myanmar’s prolonged military coup in 2021 amid atrocities against Rohingya and other peoples, the dramatic escalations of rights violations in Afghanistan in 2021, several severe human rights crises in Africa, and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2022. She also confronted threats to the UN human rights budget by the US under the Trump administration.

The mandate of the High Commissioner requires management of a complex mix of “diplomatic, activist and managerial” responsibilities within a deeply troubling global context. The diverse stakeholders include States, non-State actors including Indigenous Peoples, UN bodies, civil society, and the victims of human rights violations for whose protection the mandate exists.

One of the most important responsibilities of the OHCHR is to support the work of the ten UN human rights committees (treaty bodies) and the Human Rights Council Special Procedures mandate holders. The bodies are staffed by independent experts who contribute their time and expertise on a pro bono basis. They are tasked to review country situations for compliance with international human rights law and are often a last resort for people seeking justice and protection of their fundamental human rights.

Who is Volker Türk? Inevitable comparisons with predecessors

[Photo Credit: Dean Calma / IAEA. License Cropped by ]

The new High Commissioner, Volker Türk, is not well known outside UN circles, but he is an experienced UN official with expertise in refugee and human rights issues. He holds a doctoral degree in international law. He is a close confidante of UN Secretary-General António Guterres who appointed him as High Commissioner amid criticism of a rushed application process with poor transparency and lack of consultation with civil society. In his current role coordinating global policy as an Under-Secretary-General in the UN Executive Office, Mr. Türk coordinates the implementation of the Secretary-General’s report, Our Common Agenda, and the Call to Action for Human Rights.

Michelle Bachelet, former head of state of Chile, was also appointed by Mr. Guterres, and was similarly viewed as part of the Secretary-General’s inner circle. Ms. Bachelet insisted that the Secretary-General had always respected the independence of her office. Independence has been a longstanding hallmark of the High Commissioner’s work since the establishment of the role in 1994.

International expectations for Mr. Türk are inevitably set against the perceived strengths and weaknesses of his predecessors. There have been seven previous High Commissioners – four women and three men. While two terms are contemplated, only two High Commissioners have served more than one four-year term. Navi Pillay (2008-2014), served an additional two years at the request of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Mary Robinson (1997-2002) stayed on for an extra year at the request of Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Michelle Bachelet was castigated by human rights advocates for overemphasising diplomacy and for “relative silence” and weak responses to China’s alleged atrocity crimes. Others accused her of unfairly “bashing” Israel. In general, her work tended to emphasize economic and social rights, and she was perceived to make strong contributions on climate change, poverty, inequality, women’s rights, global vaccine inequity, and US racism.

Her predecessor, Jordanian diplomat Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein (2014-2018), was both lauded and criticized for his outspoken advocacy of human rights. He decided not to seek a second term. According to Ian Seiderman of the International Commission of Jurists, “Zeid made it known generally that pressures and obstacles to the Office’s work he had been facing were formidable and he concluded that his position had essentially become untenable.” Like Ms. Bachelet, he was criticized by some, but not for want of truth-telling. A former member of the UN Human Rights Committee criticized his “untimely, aggressive and omnipresent public speeches [that] contributed to the burning of any remaining bridges that may have existed with populist leaders already reticent at the idea of discussing human rights.”

Navi Pillay from South Africa, High Commissioner from 2008-2014, was applauded for her 2012 work to address challenges facing UN human rights treaty bodies. A decade later, though, most of her proposals have not yet been implemented. She reported that her Office had experienced difficulties “in attempting to shed light on violations,” saying that “calls for investigations into human rights abuses, the analysis and reporting done by her Office had often been greeted with “stone-walling and denial.” She did not escape criticism from States she called to account for alleged grave human rights abuses, including Sri Lanka and Israel.

High Commissioner Louise Arbour of Canada (2004-2008) was praised for her insistence that counter-terrorism efforts comply with human rights. However, this stance also earned her severe criticism. She was personally belittled by US Ambassador to the UN under the GW Bush administration, then John Bolton. Several countries disapproved of her criticism of Israel’s killing of Palestinian civilians. She has been praised for her plan of action that resulted in increasing the OHCHR budget; added funds were used to extend the work of the Office by expanding the number of field offices.

High Commissioner Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil (2002-2003), a Brazilian diplomat, was killed in a bombing in Iraq less than a year into his term, and an Acting High Commissioner Bertrand Ramcharan served as High Commissioner until Ms. Arbour was appointed in 2004.

Mary Robinson of Ireland served as High Commissioner from 1997-2002. Praised for her outspoken advocacy for human rights, she also faced heavy disapproval from the US for her criticism of the “war on terror” and by countries that alleged that her criticism of Israel was disproportionate. She is known for giving priority to implementation of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s reforms that aimed to integrate human rights throughout the UN system.

The first High Commissioner, Brazilian diplomat José Ayala-Lasso (1994-1997), was harshly criticized by human rights organizations for overemphasis on dialogue and quiet diplomacy while failing to stand up for victims of human rights violations. However, he set up human rights field offices including in Rwanda, Cambodia, Burundi, Zaire and the former Yugoslavia.

What can be expected of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights?

No High Commissioner is likely to escape criticism. What can realistically be expected of the person in this crucial role?

The mandate of the High Commissioner is set out in the 1994 UN General Assembly Resolution A/Res/48/141. Nominated by the UN Secretary-General and appointed by the General Assembly, the High Commissioner is mandated to promote and protect human rights, coordinate UN human rights programs, and engage in “a dialogue with all Governments” to secure respect for human rights.

This general mandate allows the High Commissioner to “act whenever and wherever rights are at risk.” The High Commissioner, with the OHCHR, has a broad and flexible mandate to take the initiative to report on particular human rights issues or urgent crises without needing to wait for a mandate from a UN political body such as the Security Council, the General Assembly, or the Human Rights Council.

“Paper-thin” budget for UN human rights: Less than the Swiss spend on chocolate

Rarely discussed is the important role of the High Commissioner to ensure “that support is given to the projects, activities, organs and bodies of the human rights programme” of the UN throughout the world.

The human rights budget has remained at a tiny fraction of funding for the other core pillars. Despite the fact that the High Commissioner’s mandate to promote and protect human rights around the world is a core UN purpose and function, human rights work has for decades garnered only about three percent of the UN budget and relies heavily on additional voluntary contributions from States and private donors.

Underfunding continues despite the terms of GA resolution 48/141, which requests that the Secretary-General “provide appropriate staff and resources, within the existing and future regular budgets of the United Nations, to enable the High Commissioner to fulfil his/her mandate, without diverting resources from the development programmes and activities of the United Nations.”

In 2014, High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said he was “shocked” at the OHCHR’s “paper thin” capacity to fulfil its mandate, saying: “Time and time again we have been instructed to do these and other major extra activities ‘within existing resources’ – which is like being asked to use a boat and a bucket to cope with a flood.”

Noting that his Office received about three percent of the UN regular budget, only “about a third” of what it needed, he said:

For 2014 and 2015, OHCHR was allocated only about US$87 million per year – a small fraction of the regular budget allocations to the peace and security and development pillars. The Swiss population, including all us foreigners living here who love Swiss chocolate, paid over 10 times this amount on chocolate last year.

Previous High Commissioners also struggled with underfunding. In 2011, Navi Pillay described the UN’s budget allocation for human rights, then still three percent, as “scandalous.” In 2005, High Commissioner Louise Arbour warned that her office was “chronically under-resourced and ill-equipped;” her plan of action to strengthen human rights within the UN system included a proposal to double the resources of the OHCHR.

In 2022, High Commissioner Bachelet launched a funding appeal for additional voluntary contributions from UN member States and private donors to fulfil her human rights program, which continues to receive only three percent of the UN regular budget (in 2022 $134 million). She pointed out that “this means resources allocated to human rights are in decline: official human rights mandates continue to grow in number and scope, and Member States have formally requested consideration of an increase in the budget share for human rights.” She sought an additional $400 million but as of 31 August, voluntary contributions totaled only $141,645,666.00.

Conclusion: Ensure equal priority of human rights

The current Secretary-General’s 2021 document, Our Common Agenda, calls for a new international social contract “anchored in human rights.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…” Thus, recognition and respect for human rights is inextricable from the other core UN mandates for peace and security and development – including the urgent need to ensure the right to a healthy environment – for all individuals and peoples of the world.

To be successful, the new High Commissioner will need to fully integrate – strategically, courageously, and single-mindedly – all elements of the mandate set out in the 1994 resolution, with the overarching goal of promotion and protection of human rights for everyone, everywhere. The mandate, competence, and independence of the High Commissioner requires the full respect and support of all States and other stakeholders, including human rights advocates.

The High Commissioner needs to insist on the full implementation of the 1994 General Assembly resolution A/Res/48/141, including adequate financial and staff resources for human rights. This includes adequate resources to support the work of UN human rights treaty bodies and Special Procedures mandate holders.

Diplomacy and development must never be prioritized over truth-telling about human rights; all are essential and must be integrated, not precariously balanced on an uneven platform, where some issues and peoples generally end up at the vulnerable low end. All engagement in dialogue with governments must be vigorously and strategically aimed at securing respect for human rights for all. GA Resolution A/Res/48/141 also requires the High Commissioner to be “guided by the recognition that all human rights – civil, cultural, economic, political and social – are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated.”

The High Commissioner’s independence and impartiality are also essential as a needed bulwark against the political and economic interests of powerful States and non-State actors especially today where the number of repressive authoritarian regimes is increasing. The new High Commissioner can only accomplish his mandate if full respect – including funding – is provided to human rights in recognition of its formal status as a core pillar of the UN system.

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