Bold Action, Moral Clarity: Four Priorities for the New High Commissioner for Human Rights

On September 1, Michelle Bachelet will take over one of the hardest jobs in the world—UN high commissioner for human rights. On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 25th anniversary of the creation of the high commissioner for human rights, human rights under threat like never before. From secret budget cuts for human rights promotion at the UN to the US withdrawal from the Human Rights Council in an effort to undermine it, governments are retreating from their international obligations to protect and promote human rights and support the systems that ensure accountability. Meanwhile, in countries across the globe, the world is witnessing an uptick in human rights abuses, from the suppression of civil society to the murder of human rights defenders.

The new high commissioner, working hand-in-hand with civil society, must be an unwavering champion for human rights. Now confirmed, Bachelet now has the singular opportunity to take the bold actions needed to ensure that human rights continue to be respected, protected, and fulfilled in their entirety.

  1. Stand up for all human rights, including sexual and reproductive rights

From speaking out against the criminalization of abortion in El Salvador to denouncing the US’ separation of migrant families and defending the human rights of LGBTQI individuals, High Commissioner Zeid championed the full range of human rights during his tenure. Bachelet must do the same and not shy away from demanding that all countries protect all human rights for all people, even those they would prefer to ignore. She must bring the same moral clarity and authority to violations of sexual and reproductive rights as she would to any other human rights violation, such as prohibitions on freedom of speech.

Too often, the human rights that are most attacked are those that center on women and LGBTQI people, and what they can or cannot do with their bodies. Ignoring these human rights endangers people’s lives and jeopardizes the progress that has been made, not only on sexual and reproductive rights, but also on gender equality. Failures to defend sexual and reproductive rights undermine the principle that human rights are inalienable, indivisible, interrelated, and universal, and therefore weakens the human rights agenda overall.

As high commissioner, Bachelet should make and seize opportunities to promote and defend sexual and reproductive rights, holding countries accountable for violations.

  1. Defend the human rights system, including space for civil society

Anti-human rights actors have ramped up their attacks on the human rights system in the past few years, emboldened by the US government’s abdication of its role as a defender of that system. Through administrative maneuvers and decisions made in the guise of “efficiency,” countries have cut key human rights positions as well as funding for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). As a result, in addition to defending human rights, Bachelet will also have to defend the human rights system itself.

In this effort, the new high commissioner should treat civil society as a strategic partner and trusted ally, and work to expand civil society’s access to the UN. Specifically, the new high commissioner should take up the recommendations in the recent OHCHR report on civil society engagement with regional and international organizations. As the report recognizes: “The effective functioning of international and regional organizations is inexorably linked to civil society participation.” In other words, without civil society, multilateral spaces do not work.

As high commissioner, Bachelet should prioritize following up on the concrete recommendations in the report that countries can take to preserve and expand space for civil society.

  1. Promote women’s voices and empower bold leadership on gender equality and women’s human rights within the Office of the High Commissioner

The high commissioner is only one person and cannot fight on all fronts simultaneously. Therefore, the new high commissioner must surround herself with a team of trusted, experienced human rights experts, including people with expertise on sexual and reproductive rights. The new high commissioner will need to be surrounded by deputies and advisors that push her and OHCHR to fulfill the mandate of promoting and protecting all human rights, through a combination of strong statements, deep technical work, and innovative partnerships with other UN agencies and civil society. In particular, Bachelet should throw her full support behind OHCHR’s existing efforts on gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights, such as the work of High-Level Working Group on the Health and Human Rights of Women, Children and Adolescents, led by Deputy High Commissioner Kate Gilmore, and empower staff to expand their efforts in these areas.

The new high commissioner should ensure that women and LGBTQI people occupy prominent, influential positions within OHCHR leadership, that staff have expertise on all human rights, including sexual and reproductive rights, and that they are empowered to work toward the full realization of these rights.

  1. Speak truth to power

As the entire UN struggles to secure sufficient funding, the new high commissioner may be tempted to soften her criticism of human rights abuses in exchange for the guarantee of financial resources. Indeed, High Commissioner Zeid chose not to seek another term specifically because he worried he would be required to mute his voice.  While all UN agencies struggle to balance independence with their obligation to cooperate with countries, OHCHR, with its mandate to promote and protect human rights, must be more independent than all others.

In defense of her mandate, Bachelet should resist all temptations to temper her activities and must always be ready to speak truth to power.

Photo: UN Women/JC McIlwaine

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