Foundation for Defense of Democracies Memo: The Time Is Now to Reform the UN Human Rights Apparatus

August 24, 2022 | Memo


Orde Kittrie | Senior Fellow

Bruce Rashkow | Former U.S. State Department Assistant Legal Adviser for United Nations

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in Guangzhou on May 23, 2022. (Deng Hua/Xinhua via Getty Images)

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Two key decision points — one later this month, another in September — will determine whether the UN human rights apparatus starts implementing its founding principles or remains a vehicle for the world’s most abusive governments to distract attention from their own violations by focusing UN resources on condemning Israel.

First, by the end of August, Secretary-General António Guterres will have to nominate a new high commissioner for human rights, the top UN human rights official. The outgoing high commissioner, Michele Bachelet, has been unwilling to speak candidly about China’s grave abuses and has been incapable of pressuring Beijing to change.

Second, when the next regular session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) convenes on September 12, it will have an opportunity to dissolve its Commission of Inquiry (COI) on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The COI’s mandate and commissioners are egregiously biased. The UNHRC will also have an opportunity to rescind the appointment of Francesca Albanese, the biased special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories.

The world’s most repressive dictatorships have dominated the UNHRC since its founding in 2006. Whereas the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump rejected participation in the council, the Biden administration rejoined it in January, announcing a commitment to reform the body and asserting that “positive change is within reach.” 

Members of Congress and human rights supporters everywhere should encourage and help the Biden administration to seize the two pivotal opportunities ahead to reform the UN human rights apparatus.

Bachelet’s Term Dominated by Double Standards

As the top UN human rights official, the high commissioner supervises a staff of over 1,600, executes a $350 million annual budget, and runs some two dozen offices around the world. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) also serves as the secretariat for the UNHRC, responsible both for providing recommendations to the council and for helping implement its decisions. The OHCHR also serves as a secretariat for, or otherwise supports, some 58 special rapporteurs and other “independent human rights experts” with thematic or country mandates, as well as a dozen active commissions of inquiry, fact-finding missions, and similar investigations established by the UNHRC.

The 1994 General Assembly resolution that created the position of high commissioner specified that its duties must be performed in a manner that is “impartial, objective, non-selective and effective.” Bachelet’s performance has fallen far short of these criteria.

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