New High Commissioner for Human Rights

Guest edited by David Petrasek and Agnès Callamard.

The post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was set up 20 years ago. The initial impetus came from NGOs – at the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights they pointed to the need for the UN to empower a high level official with a worldwide mandate to promote and protect human rights. A new High Commissioner, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein of Jordan, has just been appointed and he will take up his post in August. He is the sixth High Commissioner; not one of his predecessors has served the full 8 years (two terms) allotted.

Prince Zeid faces many challenges: human rights crises rage in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, and grow daily more alarming in Iraq and Syria, countries neighbouring his own; UN member states, not least in the Security Council, are more often divided than united on human rights questions, and the High Commissioner’s office is subject to almost unprecedented scrutiny and attack by some member states; reports point to rising discrimination and intolerance in many countries around the world, even as there is less freedom for local activists who defend human rights; and inequality within and between countries gets worse, and those with economic power resist efforts to be subject to human rights rules. The High Commissioner must confront these and many other challenges, and do so with just 3% of the UN’s regular budget.

How should he proceed? In a world of competing priorities, how to choose? What issues risk being ignored? What should distinguish this High Commissioner’s term in office?

Improving and expanding advocacy efforts on the ground: key tasks for new High Commissioner

Human rights advocacy in the field is a powerful tool, consistently underestimated by UN officials. The new High Commissioner must strengthen his Office’s role on the ground, but he can’t be the only ‘bad cop’. Other UN agencies in the field must defend human rights.


A do and don’t do list for the new High Commissioner

A new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has just been appointed - Prince Zeid, Jordan’s UN Ambassador in New York. He will need to move quickly to improve the visibility and viability of the Office’s mandate in a changing global environment. Español, العربية

Latest responses:

A digital agenda for the new High Commissioner for Human Rights

Camille François

Putting youth at the centre of the human rights agenda

Youth form a crucial constituency for the High Commissioner, and - to overcome their growing disenfranchisement - he should lead in the development of a specific framework that sets out and champions their rights.


The Human Rights Commissioner needs to get down to business

Amidst many priorities, the High Commissioner must focus on the problem of ensuring companies respect human rights, at a moment when a hard fought consensus on how to do so is at risk of unravelling. Español


The High Commissioner for Human Rights: a human rights defender-in-chief

The new High Commissioner has a particular responsibility to protect human rights defenders, especially so when they face intimidation and reprisals for their efforts to seek accountability at the UN for human rights violations.


UN forsakes its values when it favors ‘stability’ over fundamental rights

Though he should be focused on governments, the new High Commissioner for Human Rights will also need to hold senior UN officials to account for undermining rights, as recent events in Kenya show.


A plea to the new High Commissioner for Human Rights: defend women's rights

The new High Commissioner has the opportunity to grasp the torch lit by his predecessors and fully embrace and defend an uncompromising stance for women’s equality - and his legacy will be judged on his commitment to doing so.


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.


More ambition required to reform UN treaty bodies

The recent reform of the UN’s rights-monitoring bodies falls far short of expectations, and fails to reach out to those whose rights are most in need of protection. The new High Commissioner needs a fresh approach. Français


Improving the Special Procedures: three tips for the High Commissioner for Human Rights

The independent experts (or ‘Special Procedures’) appointed by the UN to monitor human rights worldwide are the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the UN system  - the new High Commissioner needs to move quickly to defend their independence and ensure they get the support they need. Español


All articles and responses in date order:

Improving and expanding advocacy efforts on the ground: key tasks for new High Commissioner

Human rights advocacy in the field is a powerful tool, consistently underestimated by UN officials. The new High Commissioner must strengthen his Office’s role on the ground, but he can’t be the only ‘bad cop’. Other UN agencies in the field must defend human rights.  Français 

A digital agenda for the new High Commissioner for Human Rights

Promoting, protecting and fulfilling human rights requires a secure Internet, but states misuse cyber security scares to threaten individual liberties. The High Commissioner can be a powerful voice promoting a right to cyber security while defending expression and privacy rights.

Putting youth at the centre of the human rights agenda

Youth form a crucial constituency for the High Commissioner, and  - to overcome their growing disenfranchisement - he should lead in the development of a specific framework that sets out and champions their rights.

The Human Rights Commissioner needs to get down to business

Amidst many priorities, the High Commissioner must focus on the problem of ensuring companies respect human rights, at a moment when a hard fought consensus on how to do so is at risk of unravelling. Español

The High Commissioner for Human Rights: a human rights defender-in-chief

The new High Commissioner has a particular responsibility to protect human rights defenders, especially so when they face intimidation and reprisals for their efforts to seek accountability at the UN for human rights violations.

UN forsakes its values when it favors ‘stability’ over fundamental rights

Though he should be focused on governments, the new High Commissioner for Human Rights will also need to hold senior UN officials to account for undermining rights, as recent events in Kenya show.

A plea to the new High Commissioner for Human Rights: defend women's rights

The new High Commissioner has the opportunity to grasp the torch lit by his predecessors and fully embrace and defend an uncompromising stance for women’s equality - and his legacy will be judged on his commitment to doing so.

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

zunegaThe 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.