UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Success Requires a Team Effort

by Peter Splinter, Executive-in-Residence with the Global Fellowship Initiative of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy Blog, By invitation

A response to David Petrasek’s article in OpenGlobaRights entitled ‘Another one bites the dust’ (8 February 2018) and Marc Limon’s article in URG Insights entitled ‘Is being the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights an impossible job?‘ (14 February 2018).


David Petrasek’s thoughtful analysis on 12 February and Marc Limon’s equally thoughtful response on 14 February provide the basis for an important inclusive discussion about the selection of the next High Commissioner for Human Rights bearing in mind the significant challenges faced by the High Commissioner and his Office. Unfortunately, both seem to point in the direction that typifies so many efforts to improve the functioning of the UN human rights system – namely towards rewriting the rules. In theory, fixing a longer single-term for the High Commissioner and a clearer formal division of labour between the High Commissioner and her or his Deputy or deputies might create a better institutional framework leading to better human rights outcomes. However, experience has repeatedly shown that changing the established rules in the UN human rights system is very difficult and usually results in modest, if any, improvement, and only after fighting off reactionary efforts to weaken the system. In the current UN environment, where even the USA cannot be counted on to do the right thing in connection with UN human rights protection, opening up the terms of the High Commissioner’s mandate in order to rewrite them would border on the irresponsible.

While it is true that with the exceptions of Mary Robinson and Navi Pillay, no High Commissioner has served more than one full term, and none has served two full terms, the length of term of the High Commissioner is not the right battle to fight now. It has long been obvious, certainly since the time of Mary Robinson’s term as High Commissioner, that there is a price to be paid by a High Commissioner who speaks out about powerful states. Rather than opening up General Assembly resolution 48/141 in an effort to give a future High Commissioner a longer single term, the next High Commissioner should be recruited and take up her or his mandate with the expectation of serving a single four-year term. There is much that can be accomplished in four years by a determined leader. While a strategy based on working within a single four-year term will not resolve the tension between outspokenness and diplomacy that Petrasek highlights, surely much more can be done to manage that tension constructively within the existing institutional framework.

It is time to move beyond the often excessive personalisation of the post of the High Commissioner. Yes, the High Commissioner sets the direction and the tone for the Office and, one hopes, much of the rest of the UN system for human rights promotion and protection. But at the end of the day, the High Commissioner can deliver sustainable results only with the support of the Office and the backing of the UN Secretary-General and other parts of the UN system. If the Office is doing the wrong things or not doing the right things well, the UN human rights programme will under-perform irrespective of the qualities of the High Commissioner. If the UN Secretary-General and other UN senior officials do not support the High Commissioner, he or she risks becoming a lonely voice in the wilderness. There is also the perpetual issue of the shortfall in financial resources required by the Office to fulfil its mandates, but that is a matter for a separate discussion.

Before scarce time and energy are invested in resolving the tensions inherent in the High Commissioner’s mandate, it would be good to know the views of former High Commissioners and others with first-hand experience about whether those tensions are as debilitating as Limon suggests. If they are, then clearly ways should be found to address them. Many external observers of High Commissioners and the Office believe that those tensions can be managed successfully by a well-functioning Office. Rather than looking to reform measures aimed at “rationalising” the mandate of the High Commissioner, the emphasis at this time should be on ensuring that the next High Commissioner has the experience, leadership skills, and balanced managerial team necessary to ensure that the Office functions effectively and that together the High Commissioner and the Office are as well-placed as possible to lead the broader UN system in the promotion and protection of human rights. Public outspokenness is a very important aspect of the High Commissioner’s leadership, but in a world where many of the powerful are shameless about the human rights violations and abuses committed on their watch, it might not be the most important aspect. A well-functioning Office is essential to the effectiveness of the UN’s promotion and protection of human rights, as is UN-wide commitment to human rights.

The process by which the next High Commissioner is selected deserves early attention and requires improvement. It must not continue to be hostage to the occult influence of powerful states. As Petrasek mentions in connection with civil society and activists, the High Commissioner’s leadership role extends well beyond the UN. Civil society has an important stake in the effectiveness of the High Commissioner and the Office, and provision must be made to enable civil society from across the globe to play an active role in the selection of the next High Commissioner.


Peter Splinter is an Executive-in-Residence with the Global Fellowship Initiative of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. From 2004 to 2016 he was Amnesty International’s Representative to the United Nations in Geneva.


Feature Photo: Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al Hussein ( left ) United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Antonio Guterres ( right ) United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees during Sergio Vieira de Mello Debate. 12 March 2015. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

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