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Needed: a UN High Commissioner who serves the people, not the system

The new High Commissioner for Human Rights must above all be an advocate who puts his authority and energy at the service of those people whose rights to life and physical integrity are under threat. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on the New High Commissioner of Human Rights.

Javier Zúñiga-Mejia-Borja
11 July 2014

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has been an important part of my work in human rights. I was a member of the Amnesty International team that campaigned for its creation in 1993 and later I served as Head of OHCHR’s first field office - the Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda (HRFOR).

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has been an important part of my work in human rights. I was a member of the Amnesty International team that campaigned for its creation in 1993 and later I served as Head of OHCHR’s first field office - the Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda (HRFOR).

I remember very clearly how the day after the first High Commissioner, José Ayala Lasso, took up his post on 5 April 1994, the plane carrying the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down, triggering one of the gravest human rights crises of the 20th Century. How would the OHCRC respond?

To his credit, Ayalo Lasso confronted the challenge head on. He visited Rwanda soon after the killings started and while the genocide was still unfolding. It was his report of what was going on that prompted the UN Commission on Human Rights to appoint a Special Rapporteur to go Rwanda as soon as possible, and later on to establish HRFOR.

For me, being asked in 1996 to head the Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda was the culmination of a lifetime of human rights work. Here was my chance to see what difference the OHCHR could make to people living through the Rwandan nightmare.

To understand why this seemed so important, one needs to recall how little the UN spoke out against the abuse of human rights when I joined Amnesty International in 1977. Systematic torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions were the methods of choice used by military dictatorships in every region to stay in power. They were able to inflict appalling levels of violence with impunity, safe in the knowledge that by and large the international community would do nothing.  

Some individual governments did, of course, rise to the challenge, and international solidarity from individuals and organizations offered hope and support to people even in their most desperate moments. However, the overwhelming feeling among victims and human rights organizations was one of isolation. We felt we had been abandoned by the international community as a whole and by the United Nations in particular.

We believed, therefore, that the creation of the position of High Commissioner for Human Rights, beside the UN Secretary-General, with all the authority and influence that that position entailed, could make a real difference to the protection and promotion of human rights.

And that is why finding myself in Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide was in some ways a moment of reckoning. Was the OHCHR going to be able to deliver on the hopes that had inspired its creation?

Today, the OHCHR is failing to make a decisive impact on a crisis on a much lesser scale in the Central African Republic.

HRFOR had more human rights field officers on the ground than any other UN agency. As the head of HRFOR, I had detailed daily reports of human rights violations from across the county, which sadly were on going. We were able to identify those responsible and propose solutions. But the government simply ignored our reports and refused to take the action needed. Similarly, we were stymied when we sought to investigate reported atrocities committed in the context of the armed rebellion against then President Mobutu in neighbouring Zaire (now the DRC). Special Rapporteurs and forensic anthropologists were brought to Kigali, and intended to enter eastern Zaire and investigate. But the international community did not support us by bringing pressure to bear on the Rwandan Government and the Congolese insurgency, which it was supporting, to allow the delegation to carry out an investigation in situ. I found that as a representative of the OCHCR I was as powerless as I had been as a representative of Amnesty International, except that at least with Amnesty I could publicly name and shame those responsible.

When I arrived in Rwanda, I told HRFOR staff that our presence in the country meant that the long journey to take the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from a paper pledge to a real source of protection, was nearing its end. I was mistaken. Soon after I left, the Rwandan government expelled HRFOR.

Today, the OHCHR is failing to make a decisive impact on a crisis on a much lesser scale in the Central African Republic. The reason for this failure seems clear to me. In the 20 years since its creation, governments have succeeded in getting the OHCHR to emphasize its softer role – supporting human rights mechanisms and technical cooperation with governments – to the detriment of its crucial role as a high-powered human rights advocate.  Having said that, I am the first to recognize the fantastic work done by its country offices and the dedication and competence of its staff.


Toby Woodbridge/Demotix. (All Rights Reserved)

Are all rights truly "indivisible"? Anti-balaka in the Damala district of Bangui of the Central African Republica pose, showing off their weapons and methods with one of their group acting as victim.


As I leave Amnesty International after more than 37 years on the frontline of human rights work, I carry the hope that the new High Commissioner will set clear priorities and put his authority and energy at the service of those people whose rights to life and physical integrity are under threat – rights without which all other rights are meaningless. 

We campaigned for the OHCHR because we wanted a powerful ally, a servant of the people, not a servant of the system. To make that vision a reality, we need a High Commissioner who is prepared to allow an independent root and branch review of the Office, of its successes and its failures; who will spend time on the ground visiting prisons, smelling their stench; and who will talk to torture survivors, to families of people who have been forcibly disappeared or massacred, and feel their pain, isolation and despair.  We need someone with the courage to cut through bureaucracy at all levels. We need someone who will heed and act forcibly and promptly on the recommendations from Special Rapporteurs and other experts.

In short, we need a High Commissioner who can give the Office back to the victims.

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