Is being the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights an Impossible Job?

by Marc Limon Blog

A response to David Petrasek’s article in OpenGlobaRights entitled ‘Another one bites the dust’ (8 February 2018).


David Petrasek’s recent article on the early departure of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, provides an extremely timely insight into the under-the-surface tensions and dynamics that help explain Zeid’s decision to step down. The article also offers clues as to what needs to happen next if the UN is to break this trend of early departures and provide future High Commissioners with the tools they need to properly fulfil their mandate and complete their full terms.

The High Commissioner’s own explanation of his decision was, in effect, that the worldwide retreat from human rights had made his position untenable:

‘After reflection, I have decided not to seek a second four-year term. To do so, in the current geopolitical context, might involve bending a knee in supplication; muting a statement of advocacy; lessening the independence and integrity of my voice – which is your voice.’

This is overly simplistic. Simplistic because it ignores the key (one might say ‘real’) underlying reasons for his departure – reasons hinted at but not fully explored in Petrasek’s article.

The article rightly acknowledges Zeid as a ‘prominent and eloquent spokesperson in defence of human rights, challenging states—even the most powerful—to live up to their commitments.’ However, Petrasek also notes that this outspokenness (let us call it public human rights advocacy) may not have ‘made much difference’ to the global enjoyment of human rights, and that engaging in such public advocacy (as the ‘UN’s human rights conscience’) is only one part of the High Commissioner’s overall mandate.

As Petrasek argues, in addition to speaking out about human rights violations, the High Commissioner is also expected to ‘coordinat[e] the UN’s myriad human rights activities, pursu[e] an active – and perhaps less public – human rights diplomacy, and lead[…] efforts to reform often overlapping, outdated and cumbersome UN procedures.’ This raises the follow-up question: perhaps Zeid should have ‘spen[t] less time speaking out and more time strengthening and reforming both his Office’ (for example, by putting more staff in the field – something he admittedly tried to do with the ‘Change’ initiative), and ‘the [wider] UN human rights system’ (in order to promote institutional efficiency and effectiveness – something Zeid tried his best to avoid during his time in office). The conclusion reached in the article is that:

‘A less public profile, in this view, might produce less resistance to much-needed reform—diplomacy succeeding where activism fails.’

This is an important contribution to what should be a far more thoughtful and nuanced debate about the success, or otherwise, of Zeid’s time in Office. However, a more fundamental question with crucial long-term implications is raised at the very beginning of the article, namely: ‘is the job do-able?’

This question is related to the above-mentioned point – that the High Commissioner position is, in fact, a number of jobs rolled into one. Today, the mandate of the High Commissioner and his/her Office comprises:

  • Monitoring and speaking out about human rights violations around the world – ‘preventing the continuation of human rights violations throughout the world,’ (OP4f of GA resolution 48/141 of 7 January 1994).
  • Acting as the Secretariat to the ‘competent bodies of the United Nations system in the field of human rights and [making] recommendations to them,’ (OP4b of GA res. 48/141).
  • Providing capacity building, advisory services and technical assistance, at the request of the State concerned, ‘with a view to supporting actions and programs in the field of human rights,’ (OP4d, GA res. 48/141).
  • Engaging in human rights diplomacy (‘dialogue’) with governments and ‘enhanc[ing] international cooperation,’ in order to promote the implementation of international human rights obligations and commitments, and respect for human rights, (OP4g, OP5h, GA res. 48/141).
  • Coordinating human rights mainstreaming across the UN system, (OP4i, GA res. 48/141).
  • Making recommendations and driving efforts to ‘rationalize, adapt, strengthen and streamline the United Nations machinery in the field of human rights with a view to improving its efficiency and effectiveness,’ (OP4j, GA res. 48/141).

It is clear that, when held in the hands of a single human being, these different parts of the High Commissioner’s overall mandate operate in tension and are, perhaps, even mutually incompatible.

Some parts (e.g. monitoring and speaking out) require the High Commissioner to remain aloof and independent from, and to publicly criticise, UN member States. Others (e.g. providing capacity-building support and technical assistance to States, engaging in dialogue and enhancing international cooperation, or advising States on reform of the UN human rights machinery) require a close, trustful and cooperative relationship with governments. Yet another part requires the High Commissioner to be the head of the secretariat of the Human Rights Council, its mechanisms, and the Treaty Bodies, (i.e. to be independent and impartial, and merely implement the decisions of States).

Is it possible for one person to wear all these hats at the same time? Can a single person publicly criticise States in one breath, then in the next reach out to them to forge agreement on reform of the UN human rights system or to provide human rights technical assistance? Does the role – and OHCHR – need to be split between the monitoring, technical assistance/cooperation, and secretariat functions? Should the High Commissioner have additional Deputies to take independent responsibility for some parts of his/her mandate?

The rumour in Geneva and New York is that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres believes Zeid has over-prioritized human rights monitoring and public advocacy, As a consequences – again according to the rumour mill – the Secretary-General may favour a more ‘low key’ candidate as the next High Commissioner. Perhaps someone who will emphasise human rights diplomacy, international cooperation, and the on-the-ground delivery of technical assistance and capacity-building support. This rumour has already led to pre-emptive murmurings of protest from some Western States and human rights NGOs. Yet would a High Commissioner who focuses on securing cooperation and delivering human rights assistance be any more – or less – guilty of the selective application or his/her mandate than Zeid? Would he or she really be a better or a worse High Commissioner?

The past two years have shown, beyond any doubt, how important it is to have a High Commissioner Zeid speaking the truth about the human rights situation in countries around the world, irrespective of how powerful those countries are. The world needs a High Commissioner Zeid. Yet, it also needs a High Commissioner who can fulfill the other core parts of the mandate.  The question is: is that possible?   

These are difficult and sensitive questions, and yet it is surely important that they be asked and considered now rather than later. Perhaps today, as the Secretary-General ponders the appointment of the next High Commissioner, is an opportune moment to do so?


Photo credits: Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations, High Commissioner for Human Rights before presentation oral update on the activities of his Office and global human rights developments during 36th session of the Human Rights Council. 11 September 2017. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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