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For the UN Human Rights Office, a Major Restructuring Worldwide


Zeid Jean-Marc Ferré
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, a Jordanian and the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, has announced plans for seven new regional hubs for the office as well as enlarging the New York operation and reducing the Geneva base. JEAN-MARC FERRE

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.

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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.

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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.

Rosa Freedman, the author.
Rosa Freedman, the author and a human-rights expert.

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.


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Dr. Rosa Freedman is a senior lecturer at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham, England. Her research focuses on the United Nations and human rights, particularly the political effects on international human-rights law. Dr. Freedman has published extensively on the UN Human Rights Council and is working on a British Academy-funded project on UN special procedures. Her other main research project is on UN peacekeeping and accountability for human-rights abuses committed during such operations.

Dr. Freedman has published two books, “Failing to Protect: The UN and the Politicization of Human Rights” and “The United Nations Human Rights Council: A Critique and Early Assessment.” Her academic articles have appeared in such journals as the European Journal of International Law and Human Rights Quarterly. She also writes for national and digital media, works closely with the UN and with state governments and sits on the advisory boards of international NGOs.

Dr. Freedman received a master of laws degree from University College London and a Ph.D. from Queen Mary University of London.

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For the UN Human Rights Office, a Major Restructuring Worldwide
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Arthur Gwagwa
9 years ago

Lukas, geographically, Brussels is more convenient than Strasbourg, though I get your point. Integration of human rights with peace and security is a positive development while decentralisation to the regions, especially Africa will help us to cut on travel costs. Geneva is such an expensive city too.

Lukas Heim
Lukas Heim
9 years ago
Reply to  Arthur Gwagwa

Arthur, thanks a lot for your response. I think, I was not precise enough in the previous post. I do not question the decision to locate one of the regional hubs in Brussels. Brussels certainly is where many relevant actors influencing human rights meet. Brussels is also where much of the politics and policies affecting human rights are made. At the same time, Europe’s regional human rights machinery is largely hosted within the Council of Europe. Therefore, I was wondering if Strasbourg is part of the restructuring equation too (not instead).

9 years ago

I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by this argument. Following your logic, it would also make sense to relocate UNHCR and IOM to New York (because surely, refugee / migration issues should also be interlinked with Peace and Security / UNGA-UNSC work), followed then by the other technical organizations etc.
In short, it seems to say that in order to have a “One UN” approach / cohesion within the UN System, all but a few entities of the system need to relocate their headquarters to New York, with only regional offices left around the world.
I may have a slight Geneva bias, but I’m really not sure whether it’d become the organization well if even more HQs of agencies/funds/programmes are moved to New York – if anything, the UN has too much of a reputation of NY/USA bias.

eusebio manuel vestias pecurto

Liked this your news with the creation of new office networks in the area human rights is a valuable contribution to a better performance of local society and regional

Lukas Heim
Lukas Heim
9 years ago

This article provides a clear analysis of the what and why of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ restructuring plans. I just would like to add a qualification to the statement that several of the regional hubs are to be ‘located at the heart of the three regional human rights mechanisms’. Arguably, the heart of the European human rights mechanism is not in Brussels but Strasbourg, where the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) issues thousands of legally binding judgments every year. No intergovernmental mechanism with a similar focus or legal clout on human rights exists in Brussels. With 47 Member States, the Council of Europe’s reach also goes beyond the EU-28 (including, to name just a few, Norway, Russia, Switzerland or Turkey). It would be interesting to know if Strasbourg, as a location, is going to play any role in the restructuring plans – for example if there are any considerations to set up a liaison office.

9 years ago
Reply to  Lukas Heim

Strongly agree that Strasbourg should be included in the new decentralization. COE is much more important — and frankly, much better — in protecting human rights in the European region.

Rosa Freedman
Rosa Freedman
9 years ago
Reply to  Steven

While I understand your point, for me the heart of the three regional mechanisms is where the regional organisations headquarters are located (owing to human rights being a central component of those organisations and mainstreamed across their activities) as opposed to where human rights courts or commissions sit. But I do know that there is no ‘right’ answer to that question.

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