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The United Nations human-rights machinery is making its most radical overhaul since the creation of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights more than two decades ago. A recent announcement by Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan, the High Commissioner, indicates that the Office will have a vastly increased field presence, a larger and stronger New York division and a pared-back presence in Geneva.
To enhance its field presence, the Office will open seven new regional hubs to provide a permanent presence to strengthen and help to coordinate its field operations, as the current network of regional offices and country offices are temporary.
Those permanent regional hubs will be set up in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Almaty (Kazakhstan), Amman (Jordan), Dakar (Senegal), Brussels (Belgium), Bangkok (Thailand) and Washington, D.C., three of which — Addis Ababa, Brussels and Washington — have been located at the heart of the three regional human-rights mechanisms.
Moreover, the New York office, housed in the UN Secretariat building and led by Ivan Simonovic of Croatia since 2010, will be doubled in size, while the Geneva office will be reduced by more than 10 percent through staff member relocations.
These developments by Zeid, who became High Commissioner in late 2014, represent significant changes in how human rights are viewed and managed by the UN. Zeid replaced Navi Pillay, a South African jurist. The High Commissioner oversees the work of the UN’s Human Rights Council, which is also based in Geneva, as well as the human-rights machinery throughout the UN system.
It has been a long and badly kept secret that people in the New York headquarters of the UN hold a dim view of the fact that the organization’s human-rights mechanisms are firmly ensconced in Geneva. Since the establishment of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1993, there has been an important but rapid ad hoc expansion of the human-rights machinery and activities that it carries out. The human-rights pillar of the UN, previously viewed as the poor cousin of the other two pillars — development and peace and security — has rightfully been awarded more and more financing, attention and influence within the UN.
Yet the conglomeration of human-rights mechanisms, such as the highly esteemed Special Procedures mandate holders, originating in Geneva — which is not only physically distant from New York but also culturally apart — has negatively affected the scope and power that those mechanisms have on other parts of the UN. Even well-staffed country missions to Geneva, with dedicated human-rights experts, often have little say with their national counterparts in New York.
This divisive atmosphere between New York and Geneva has led to skepticism across the UN as to the effectiveness of the Office of the High Commissioner and an increasing awareness of the need for structural change. Many say a radical overhaul was long overdue.
In 2005, when the 47-member Human Rights Council was being created (replacing the much-criticized UN Commission on Human Rights), many diplomats and delegations — most notably John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN — pushed back against the idea that the new body must be located in Geneva. The argument then, and that is now increasingly holding sway, is that if human rights are to be integrated into all UN activities and to be taken as seriously as the other two pillars of UN work, some of the key programs and mechanisms need to be visible and accessible to the UN member states present in New York.
Sadly, keeping the human-rights operations out of sight of New York has also kept them out of mind. The Human Rights Council, for example, could have been having much more influence in the Security Council and the General Assembly had the member-state missions who are based in New York been responsible for monitoring or attending sessions of all three bodies.
The government level is only half of the story, of course. The UN itself requires information, knowledge and awareness to mainstream human rights across all its activities. And there are many programs planned and delivered through New York. The satellite office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York, while run by some of the most able and intelligent international civil servants in the UN, is woefully overworked and lacking the human resources it requires to ensure that human rights are as visible and foregrounded as security and development.
For at least a decade, the drums have been beating louder for the “human rights kingdom” to be broken up and for parts to be relocated to the field or to New York. It seems that Zeid agrees with these views. Change is afoot and, while the birthing process is never easy, it is exciting times for people who work on advancing human rights internationally to see the UN mechanisms enlarged and incorporated more cohesively with the UN in New York.