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Has Anyone Seen the UN Secretary-General’s Human Rights Agenda?


A statue of the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão, located at a former Portuguese slave fort in Cacheu, Guinea-Bissau. Cão became the first European to set foot in the city, where the Portuguese started a slave trading port in 1480. JOE PENNEY

Secretary-General António Guterres has set about modernizing some sectors of the United Nations and made impassioned statements about the need to protect human rights. But beyond rhetoric, so far there has been no indication of his modernizing the human-rights sector.

We have seen this before. Dag Hammarskjold, a previous secretary-general, undoubtedly believed in human rights, but he did not want the issue to complicate his tasks. So, he told John Humphrey, the director of the UN Division of Human Rights at the time, to keep the human-rights program at minimum flying speed. Humphrey related this in his memoir, “Human Rights and the United Nations: A Great Adventure.”

Might history be repeating itself? Guterres undoubtedly has many talents and is a superb leader with passionate beliefs, including on human rights. But where, then, are human rights in his strategic priorities?

He has said many high-sounding statements about human rights: in an article in Newsweek, he wrote: “It is time for all of us to remember the values of our common humanity, the values that are fundamental to all religions and that form the basis of the U.N. Charter: peace, justice, respect, human rights, tolerance and solidarity.”

In his speech upon taking the oath of office as secretary-general on Dec. 12, 2016, he struck a nuanced note, and I paraphrase: human rights should be defended for themselves as fundamental values, not for political ends. Everyone, including minorities, should enjoy their basic human rights without discrimination. Protection of women was primordial.

Going beyond these fine words, what has Guterres emphasized? Taking the oath of office, he highlighted three strategic priorities for the UN: working for peace, supporting sustainable development and reforming its internal management. In a just-released report, “Repositioning the UN Development System to Deliver on the 2030 Agenda,” he wrote about his strategic priorities: include a review of the peace and security architecture and internal management as well as clear strategies and action plans to achieve gender parity, end sexual exploitation and abuse and strengthen counterterrorism structures.

No mention of human rights.

In his address on taking the oath of office, Guterres also identified what he saw as megatrends, including climate change, population growth, rapid urbanization, food insecurity and water scarcity, which have all increased competition for resources and heightened tensions. Conflicts have become more complex, producing horrific violations of international humanitarian law and human rights. People have been forced to flee their homes on a scale unseen in decades. And a new threat has emerged — global terrorism.

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Guterres is concrete when he addresses the need for reforms on issues of peace and development. Greater conceptual clarity and a shared understanding of the scope of peacekeeping was needed, he said at his swearing-in, to pave the way for urgent reforms: “Inspired by the new concept of sustaining peace, it is time for us all to engage in a comprehensive reform of the UN strategy, operational set up and structures for peace and security.”

Guterres also emphasized the need to do more to prevent and respond to the sexual violence and exploitation committed by people serving under the UN flag. He has since announced a new “compact” for all nations to sign to prevent and stop sex abuse and exploitation and he said he was creating a position in his office, an assistant secretary-general for victims’ rights, focusing on protecting people from sexual violence. [On Aug. 23, the new UN Victims’ Rights Advocate was named: Jane Connors of Australia.]

On sustainable development, he wrote in a recent report that he was aiming for a recalibrated UN development system, with a new generation of country teams, supported by bold and accountable leadership. He also is pursuing a delinking of the functions of UN resident coordinator and UN Development Program resident representative in the field.

Guterres’s remarks to the Human Rights Council on Feb. 27, 2017, were undoubtedly supportive and impassioned. Disregard for human rights, he said, was a disease that was spreading — north, south, east and west. The Council must be part of the cure. “And so, we must speak up for human rights in an impartial way, without double standards,” he said.

The integrity and credibility of the Council would be enhanced only by proceedings that avoided unbalanced treatment of UN member countries. “Perhaps the best prevention tool we have is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — and the treaties that derive from it.”

Vague again!

The secretary-general ended his address, “I am determined to raise the profile of human rights and to speak out whenever necessary.”

This was an eloquent address. But was it strategic? There are structural problems that deserve the attention of Guterres in the human-rights field. Future UN support for the human-rights treaty bodies is one of them. Deliberate efforts are underway to weaken the role of the treaty supervisory bodies.

The role of national human-rights infrastructure in the development process is another issue needing urgent attention. The role of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights as the main component of a global watch over human security deserves top attention.

Writing about the development sector in his recent report, Guterres stated: “I am convinced . . . that the current model has reached its exhaustion point and is insufficient to match the ambition, effectiveness and cohesion required by the new agenda.”

In preparing his report, he organized a reference group of individuals with experience in development practice and policy and established an informal sounding board as the work moves forward.

Shouldn’t the human-rights sector of the UN be accorded similar care and concern? Fresh thinking — by the secretary-general — and leadership in modernizing the UN human-rights system is certainly needed.


Bertrand G. Ramcharan is a senior fellow at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. His three decades of UN service included five years as deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and acting High Commissioner. He was a professor of human rights at the Geneva Graduate Institute and a chancellor of the University of Guyana. He is the author, among other books, of “Contemporary Human Rights Ideas”; “The UN Human Rights Council”; “Preventive Human Rights Strategies”; and “Preventive Diplomacy at the UN.” His latest book, “The Law, Policy and Politics of the UN Human Rights Council,” was published in 2017.

Ramcharan, who is Guyanan, is a lawyer with a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and the Diploma of the Hague Academy of International Law. He lives in Geneva and in Scotland.

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