On Wednesday (31 August) Michelle Bachelet served her final day as head of the UN human rights office. The search for her successor commenced little more than two months prior, leading to concern that there would be insufficient time to recruit a visionary leader capable of taking the UN's human rights programmes forward under difficult circumstances.
The window did indeed prove too tight to complete the recruitment and so the UN is without a new High Commissioner for Human Rights. During this interim period the Deputy High Commissioner, Nada Al-Nashi, will perform the duties of acting High Commissioner. The UN has announced that we can expect a new High Commissioner “in due course”.
While UNA-UK consistently urged the UN to start this appointment process in a timely fashion, and we regret that this did not happen, we welcome the step to extend the recruitment process in order to facilitate a more robust process.
Over the last few months, UNA-UK has been campaigning for a transparent and merit-based appointment process, grounded in recommendations put forward by the UN's own Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) and in best practice from across the UN system in appointing senior individuals. We have been monitoring the extent to which the High Commissioner appointment process has reflected these practices, with our Transparency Checklist.
In June, UNA-UK joined over 60 civil society organisations from across the world in calling on UN Secretary-General António Guterres to ensure the position be filled by a human rights champion who is courageous and principled. UNA-UK then followed up with an open letter on 11 August, asking for an update on the appointment process, the steps taken to ensure it is robust with respect to the potential for conflicts of interest, and the expected timeline.
We are grateful to have received a formal response from the H.E. Amina Mohammed, UN Deputy Secretary-General and lead for the selection committee, on 1 September. The letter acknowledges recommendations from UNA-UK and other members of civil society and reiterates the Secretary-General’s commitment to “ensure that the candidate fully meets the profile for the position and that the selection decision enhances the objectives of the Organization for gender parity and geographic diversity.”
While we await the Secretary-General’s formal nomination, Passblue recently shared that sources in Vienna expect an Austrian, Volker Türk, to be the next High Commissioner. UNA-UK has heard from multiple other sources that Türk, the current Under-Secretary-General for Policy, Executive Office of the Secretary-General, is Guterres’ preferred candidate.
Where we are up to
Here is a round-up of developments based on details that have been publicly confirmed, and information we have received from sources inside and outside the system:
- On 27 July 2022, the deadline passed for candidates to be nominated.
- We understand around 50 people applied from all regions and that a long-list of leading candidates were interviewed during August.
- We understand that the interview panel included both internal and external experts including a representative from civil society - something UNA-UK has campaigned for.
- We understand the interview panel has now produced a shortlist, which, following vetting procedures, self-attestation from candidates as to their criminal and human rights records, and candidate declarations on any possible conflicts of interest, will be presented to the Secretary-General. Standard UN practice is for the Secretary-General to be presented with a shortlist of three including at least one woman.
- The new HCHR will not be in post on 1 September hopefully in order to allow for a thorough selection process. For the interim period the Deputy High Commissioner will step up.
- In all previous appointments, the Secretary-General's recommended candidate has been approved by consensus (without a vote) in the General Assembly.
- As in 2018, the recruitment process is being led by Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed.
Universal human rights are under threat or in retreat, including in established democracies. Those with the most power are increasingly committing the most egregious violations. In the final minutes of her tenure, Michele Bachelet released the long-awaited assessment of China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The report - which China sought to bury - is a thorough denouncement of Beijing’s policies that have perpetrated “serious human rights violations” and which may constitute “crimes against humanity".
Against this backdrop, the world needs a powerful global advocate for human rights to take up this post and lead the UN’s human rights work without fear or favour to any member state, and with a proven track record of working with and supporting civil society. We need a high commissioner with the stature, courage and independence to publish evidence and call out the human rights abuses of the powerful in a timely fashion and advocate for those affected throughout their tenure.
For these reasons, UNA-UK has been campaigning for an appointment process for the next human rights chief that is open and meritocratic, with civil society included from the outset. Having come through a robust, competitive process, the postholder and their office will have greater independence, legitimacy, and a stronger mandate to act on the urgent human rights issues the world faces.
UNA-UK welcomes the Secretary-General’s ongoing commitments to follow UN best practice for senior appointments. However, we note that recommendations from civil society as well as the JIU report remain unimplemented or unclear. Such as:
- Will generic information about candidates be released in accordance with the 2011 JIU recommendation that the nationalities and gender of candidates interviewed and those recommended following the interviews be made public?
- Will women make up at least half of the candidates invited for interview in line with the Secretary-General’s commitment to gender parity? At bare minimum will there be at least one woman interviewed in line with the recommendation of the 2011 JIU report?
- Will the appointment follow the established process on the vetting of candidates and will vetting information be published?
- Will the terms of reference of the interview panel be published?
UNA-UK understands the sensitivities around senior appointments - nevertheless highly politicised recruitment practices can mean that the most effective candidates are overlooked. This can lead to a system that is neither meritocratic nor diverse. We remain committed to strengthening the UN and its institutions by advocating for senior appointment processes to be fair, transparent and accountable to improve the legitimacy and effectiveness of the organisation.