Advice to the next High Commissioner for Human Rights: Engage with UN human rights experts

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet addresses a press conference after announcing she would not seek a second term, on the opening day of the 50th session of the Human Rights Council rights at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, June 13, 2022. EFE/Valentin Flauraud


When Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile turned senior UN official, announced that she would not run for another term in her opening speech at the 50th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, many were surprised. Rumors were that she could run for another 4-year term, possibly for at least half as one of her predecessors, Navi Pillay. Bachelet said she had announced her decision to her boss, the general secretary, two months before, although the secret was closely guarded.

Bachelet is leaving his office amid widespread criticism and unprecedented calls for his resignation following his recent failed visit to China. His successor should pledge to stand in solidarity with victims and publicly denounce violations, as well as invest politically and financially to support and strengthen treaty bodies and special procedures.

At the HRC, 47 countries have condemned China’s human rights abuses, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet in fairly strong terms. The joint statement, delivered by the Netherlands, asked High Commissioner Bachelet about the restrictions imposed during her visit and her ability to speak freely with independent NGOs. Bachelet’s perceived failure to strongly condemn the mass forced incarcerations in Xinjiang and the continued crackdown in Hong Kong and Tibet have been widely criticized.

While Bachelet’s tenure was positively marked by his engagement and contribution to issues such as climate change, poverty and inequality, vaccine inequality and the right to a healthy environment, his failed visit to China is likely to tarnish his legacy. In the few months remaining in his tenure as High Commissioner, this could be redeemed to some degree by the release of his Office’s long-awaited report on human rights violations, including crimes against humanity, in Xinjiang and convening an intersessional briefing on its main findings and recommendations. .

His successor should pledge to stand in solidarity with victims and publicly denounce violations, as well as invest politically and financially to support and strengthen treaty bodies and special procedures.

One area in which Bachelet did not perform well was in his capacity as head of the secretariat of the UN’s expert bodies, namely treaty bodies and special procedures – an area also neglected by his predecessor, Zeid Al’Hussein. The Secretariat provides the staff and financial resources that enable these expert mechanisms to function, and the High Commissioners can play a key role in their effective functioning, including, importantly, in ensuring adequate funding, complementarity and efficiency in the whole system.

Bachelet’s style and approach differed significantly from his predecessor, primarily in their dealings with states and international diplomacy in general. Clearly, Bachelet took the job with the expectation of many states that she would be less outspoken and more cooperative than her predecessor.

Despite this fundamental difference between Bachelet and his predecessor, they did not sufficiently prioritize investments in the expert mechanisms that the High Commission services. As Olivier de Frouville, a seasoned UN expert who has served in both special procedures and treaty bodies, pointed out in a highly critical assessment of Zeid’s dossierit is essential that high commissioners provide the space and resources necessary for the development of expert mechanisms.

Bachelet’s support and attention to UN expert mechanisms was no better than Zeid’s. Unlike some of her predecessors like Louise Arbour, who defended the reforms Like the proposal for a unified treaty body, Bachelet carefully steered clear of the 2020 treaty body review, which provided a major opportunity to implement some of the much-needed improvements to the system. It was despite ask the High Commissioner play a leading role. Following the rejection of the Arbor proposal, another of Bachelet’s predecessors, Navi Pillay, undertook the colossal task of compiling a comprehensive list of challenges facing treaty bodies with practical remedies and solutions to overcome them.

Apart from a few advances, some of which were initiated by NGOs, such as live-streaming sessions, most concrete reforms identified by Pillay in 2012 have yet to be implemented a decade later. Like Zeid, Bachelet completely failed to seize opportunities to work with the UN Secretary-General and with states to implement the fundamental reforms required for the expert mechanisms she served.

Apart from that, Bachelet was highly criticized by the UN experts for failing to provide them with the means to work properly online during the Covid outbreak. Many were furious that funds meant to enable them to attend sessions in Geneva had been reallocated elsewhere.

In a visionary and prophetic analysis of the departure and replacement of Zeid, the late David Petrasek analyzed that none of the high commissioners had been able to complete two four-year terms since the post was created. Bachelet will also meet the same fate.

In his 2018 article, Petrasek noted that “the growth of UN human rights mechanisms has not been accompanied by a clear growth in their efficiency or effectiveness” and that “multiple procedures and overlapping weigh on what should be an agile and responsive system”. Things have only gotten worse since: Bachelet has proven unable to enact a visionary set of reforms for her office and the mandates it hosts, often with limited coordination and competition for resources between new and existing mandates.

As pointed out in a joint call from leading international human rights NGOs regarding the appointment of the next high commissioner, publicly exposing abuses is crucial to the mandate. It is equally important to create the conditions for the United Nations expert mechanisms to contribute adequately to the same objective.

Petrasek asked if the High Commissioner’s tenure was a “poisoned gift.” And yet, former office holders such as Mary Robinson, Louise Arbor and Navi Pillay have demonstrated that it is possible to step into this position with a vision of what needs to change and a plan to do so.

It remains to be seen whether the next mandate holder will have the capacity and the will to bring about the much-needed improvements to the Office. All eyes are on New Yorkand on the Secretary General, Antonio Guterres.