You are here: Edward Mortimer: Human Rights are a bed of nails for High Commissioners and Secretaries-General

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The creation of the post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was the main achievement of the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in 1993, at a moment when there was widespread expectation that human rights and democracy would become the new norm, after the end of the cold war, and when there was rising worldwide indignation at the treatment of Bosnian Muslims by Christian Serbs, which made it harder for many developing-country governments to dismiss human rights as a purely Western concern.

The office, located in Geneva, was based on the former Centre for Human Rights. But its first holder, José Ayala Lasso of Ecuador (1994-7), wanted it to be less of a passive secretariat and provider of conference-services and more a pro-active centre of excellence, with an operational capacity similar to that of the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. He was frustrated by the failure of the General Assembly to approve an adequate budget.

Sadly, this set a pattern for the future, although subsequent High Commissioners have had a higher profile. That indeed was the object of Secretary-General Kofi Annan in choosing, as Ayala’s successor, a former head of state, Mary Robinson of Ireland (1997-2002). Her appointment was greeted with great enthusiasm, particularly in the United States, and initially she received strong support from the Secretary-General, who made great efforts, for instance, to ensure that she could brief the Security Council on human rights issues – something that was initially resisted by China.

The author monitoring Secretary-General Kofi Annan recording a video message, 2004. Credit: UN Photo

Later, however, some friction developed between them, notably in 1999 when Annan asked her not to go to East Timor in the middle of the crisis there, because he feared that her presence might interfere with his efforts to persuade President Habibie of Indonesia to withdraw his troops from the territory and allow the entry of an international force led by Australia.

Robinson’s popularity in the United States also declined as it became apparent that she would not hold back on criticism of Israel, notably during the World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001. By that time, in fact, she felt that her position was becoming untenable. Initially she had decided not to seek a second four-year term, but was persuaded by President Chirac of France, a strong admirer, to accept one further year.

On her departure, in the autumn of 2002, Kofi Annan appointed Sergio Vieira de Mello to succeed her. This appointment aroused great interest. Vieira de Mello’s background was in humanitarian work rather than human rights, and he had displayed great political skills, notably in establishing the UN administration in Kosovo in summer 1999 and then acting for three years as effectively the governor of East Timor while preparing it for independence. But alas, he had barely begun to take the measure of his new task when he agreed, reluctantly, to accept a temporary assignment as head of the UN mission in Iraq after the Anglo-American invasion. He was looking forward to his return to Geneva when, tragically, in August 2003, he and many of his staff were killed by a truck bomb detonated outside his Baghdad office.

The two High Commissioners that followed – Louise Arbour of Canada (2004-8) and Navi Pillay of South Africa (2008-14) – were both distinguished jurists who had served as senior judges in their home countries, whereas the current High Commissioner, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, is a member of the Jordanian royal family and a career diplomat, having served twice as permanent representative to the UN in New York and once as ambassador in Washington. He has been courageous and outspoken in his defence of human rights, at a time when the international climate has become notably less favourable, with powerful states such as Saudi Arabia and even the US increasingly hostile and intolerant of criticism.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) meets High Commissioner Navi Pillay (right). Credit: UN Photo

This has sometimes put the Secretary-General in a difficult position and, when Zeid announced at the end of last year that he would not seek a second term (his first expires at the end of August), some observers were quick to infer that this was because he felt he was not getting sufficient support from New York. A greater concern, however, may have been that, if Antonio Guterres were to reappoint him, he would not gain the requisite approval from the General Assembly. Previous appointments to the post have all been approved without a vote, but in the present climate this is not to be taken for granted.

Secretary-General Guterres and Michelle Bachelet. Credit: UN Photo

Persistent rumours suggest that Guterres favours ex-president Michelle Bachelet of Chile, but that she has been reluctant to let her name go forward. One reason why both might hesitate is that, if he were to appoint her, there is a risk that Venezuela (whose present government, a notorious human rights violator, is angered by last year’s decision of other western hemisphere countries, including Chile, “not to support any Venezuelan candidacy in regional and international mechanisms and organizations”) might break the tradition of consensus and call for a vote, thereby opening the door to other would-be troublemakers.

Decidedly, in choosing the next High Commissioner, Guterres has an unenviable task.

Edward Mortimer is a Distinguished Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford and the former Chief Speechwriter and Director of Communications to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan