Who will succeed Bachelet as UN human rights chief?

Secretary general Antonio Guterres, UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet and two of her predecessors, Mary Robinson and Louise Arbour, gather at the Global Compact for Migration in Marrakech, Morocco, in 2018. (Credit: Global Compact for Migration)

After Michelle Bachelet’s announcement that she would not seek a second term as UN high commissioner for human rights, the race is on in New York and Geneva to find a suitable successor.

The sudden exit of the UN rights chief amid harsh criticism over her trip to China has expectations for the next UN high commissioner for human rights running high. With the ripple effects of the war in Ukraine pushing regions into further crises and escalating geopolitical tensions, whoever is chosen to lead the office in Geneva for the next four years will have to face unprecedented challenges.

The appointment of the UN rights chief is the prerogative of secretary general Antonio Guterres, and the details will be kept under wraps until a final decision is made. A call for applications has been published on the UN’s website, but no public hearings are required. After being announced, the nominee will have to get the approval of UN state members at the General Assembly.

All that is known is that “the process is underway”, a spokesperson for the UN chief told Geneva Solutions by email. “A shortlist will be made and candidates will be interviewed but we won’t share any details until the process is concluded and we can name the person being appointed.”

No deadline has been set either, but the spokesperson assured that the secretary general’s office is trying to conclude the process “as quickly as possible” – understandably so as Bachelet will be leaving at the end of August, just before the Human Rights Council session in September.

Possible contenders

New York whispers of potential candidates have started to reach ears in Geneva. As per geographical rotation rules, it is eastern Europe’s turn to have a high commissioner for human rights representing the region. Names like Ivan Šimonović, Croatia’s ambassador to the UN in New York, are being thrown around, sources told Geneva Solutions. The Croatian diplomat was appointed assistant secretary general for human rights by the former UN chief Ban Ki-Moon in 2010 to lead the UN human rights office in New York.

The current ASG for human rights Ilze Brands Kehris is another candidate being considered, according to the sources. Kehris is Latvian and served as independent expert of the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva from 2017 to 2019, an experience which could prove useful as both Bachelet and her successor Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein have been criticised for largely neglecting the UN’s expert mechanisms and their funding woes.

Volker Türk, appointed in January 2022 by Guterres as his under secretary-general for policy, ​​is also among the possible contenders, according to information gathered by PassBlue and confirmed by independent sources. The Austrian worked for the UN Refugee Agency for over 30 years, holding various leadership positions in the Geneva-based organisation.

There are also rumours that out of fears that Russia could oppose any candidate from the eastern European region, Guterres might nominate an African or an Asian.

Calls for a human rights champion

In any case, it is likely that the UN chief will favour continuity with Bachelet’s diplomatic style, according to observers. Her predecessor Zeid’s aggressive outspokenness against governments that committed human rights violations some argue had a souring effect on relations between the human rights office and states that felt singled out.

But the Bachelet way did not please everyone either. Her acquiescence to China’s abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet sparked outcry among civil society groups and even calls for her resignation in recent months.

Taking up a pen for the first time for Le Temps on Thursday to defend her decisions, Bachelet wrote: “Following my visit to China, I was accused of having chosen a side, of playing politics. On the contrary, I avoided being drawn into geopolitical tensions, and that is one of the reasons why I wanted this opportunity to talk directly with the Chinese authorities.”

In a letter from 21 June addressed to Guterres, NGOs, including the International Service of Human Rights (ISHR), Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have called for the next human rights chief to be  “a human rights champion who is courageous and principled”.

Phil Lynch, director of ISHR told Geneva Solutions: “At a time when human rights norms and institutions are under attack, it is more important than ever that the role of high commissioner be understood as one of human rights champion, defender and leader, not one of human rights diplomat, bureaucrat or political envoy.”

The letter also calls for an “open, transparent and merit-based” election process and for civil society and human rights defenders to be consulted. Lynch said that Guterres had replied to the letter assuring that factors including merit, gender and geographic diversity would be taken into account.

But “regrettably, the response did not indicate that the secretary general will consult or engage civil society representatives in the selection process, nor that the secretary general is committed to appointing a human rights champion or leader to this vital position,” he added.

An impossible job?

Fulfilling the expectations of the secretary general, UN state members and human rights campaigners will be a hard task, especially as Covid, conflicts and climate change converge to inflict unprecedented havoc. Some might even say impossible. Since the office was created in 1993, only one high commissioner – the South African Navanethem Pillay – has extended their term beyond four years.

The high commissioner for human rights has a long list of duties, including preventing human rights violations worldwide by speaking out, carrying out human rights-related tasks assigned by UN bodies, providing advice and support to states in implementing their human rights obligations and engaging in human rights diplomacy by talking to governments when they disregard them.

Marc Limon, executive director of Universal Rights Group, has raised the question of whether the job is even doable. “It is clear that, when held in the hands of a single human being, these different parts of the high commissioner’s overall mandate operate in tension and are, perhaps, even mutually incompatible,” he wrote in a blog from 23 June.

While NGOs accused Bachelet of being too much of a diplomat, Limon argues that she was more engaged with the Council than Zeid ever was and achieved a lot through her quiet diplomacy. Bachelet claims her visit to China opened up the door for dialogue and future visits to the country that will be “essential to share our concerns and seek the necessary changes in legislation and policy to increase the protection of human rights”.

During her announcement that she would step down, Bachelet also promised the report on Xinjiang she has been sitting on for months now was being updated and would be sent to the Chinese authorities for comments before publication.

In her op-ed, Bachelet wrote: “There is no easy answer or single approach that guarantees positive change for human rights on the ground. Finding the right mix of tools to protect and promote human rights is one of the most difficult tasks of any High Commissioner.”

Limon concludes: “In truth, the world needs a high commissioner Zeid and a high commissioner Bachelet. The question is: is that possible?” He suggests other options, such as having “the high commissioner focus on public advocacy, and the deputy high commissioner on the more cooperation-oriented aspects of the mandate”.

This article previously stated that there were no calls for applications for the position of high commissioner and has been amended to indicate that it has in fact been publicly advertised on the UN's website.