Human Rights Council elects Argentinian diplomat Federico Villegas as president

Ambassador Federico Villegas of Argentina was elected on Monday as president of the Human Rights Council. (Credit:OHCHR)

Argentina’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Federico Villegas, was elected on Monday as president of the Human Rights Council, in a move rights experts said boded well for reinforcing its strengths in areas such as promoting dialogue and prevention.

Villegas will take over the reins in January from Nazhat Shameem Khan, Fiji’s ambassador, who served as president over the last year. Like Fiji, it will be the first time Argentina has held the presidency role, which rotates annually between regions. 

Addressing the council in Geneva on Monday, Villegas paid tribute to Khan for her leadership “during an unprecedented pandemic”, through which “more than 175 resolutions were adopted without cancelling or postponing sessions". 

He set out his plans for the coming year, pledging to ensure the council was a "stable platform to increase dialogue and deepen understanding about commonalities and differences about human rights", and to "learn more about the multiple roles placed by civil society organisations in improving human rights at the global and national levels".  

He also called for more concerted action "in conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction" and in further strengthening coordination within the United Nations system in advancing human rights. 

Among the biggest continuing challenges, he said, avoiding the politics that can come into play and can paralyse the council’s work. 

The council also elected ambassadors Katharina Stasch of Germany, Tamim Baiou of Libya, and Ulugbek Lapasov of Uzbekistan to serve as three of its four vice presidents next year. A fourth vice president from the eastern European group of states is expected to be elected in January. 

Who is Villegas? A career diplomat and lawyer, Villegas took up the post as UN ambassador in Geneva in March 2020, after four years in Mozambique where he set up the Argentinian embassy.  

Prior to that he served twice as director general of human rights in Argentina’s ministry of foreign affairs and has a long career working on issues of disarmament, human rights, and international security.

“Villegas is very knowledgeable and worked in Argentina’s ministry of foreign affairs as their top expert on human rights at the time the council was established in 2006,” Marc Limon, executive director of the Universal Rights Group, a think tank focused on international human rights policy, told Geneva Solutions. 

“He’s a big believer in the human rights pillar; he understands that it has often been underfunded and sidelined, and wants to put that right”.

Limon said Villegas would help reinforce some of the crucial but often overlooked areas of the council’s work, such as assisting countries in putting rights recommendations into practice and building capacity on the ground.

“I think he will push for a more positive agenda in terms of focusing more on the role of the council as a forum for cooperation and dialogue –  away from the high politics that make the headlines – and on the quieter work that delivers results,” Limon added.

Khan’s legacy and raising the voice for small island states. Khan's presidency was a historic first for Fiji, which joined the council for the first time in 2019.  It was also the first year that any small island developing state and a Pacific Island state had led the council, which has been traditionally dominated by the major powers. 

Khan on Monday said this milestone was a testament to “the weight of their voices in the shaping of the decisions and direction of global diplomacy".  

Limon said Fiji’s leadership, the Bahamas’ vice presidency, and the election of other members like the Maldives to the council in preceding years have helped elevate issues of importance for small island developing states and other developing countries, such as climate change. 

Among the achievements that Khan’s presidency will be remembered for is the passing of the council’s landmark resolution recognising the right to a healthy environment and its decision to appoint a UN expert on climate change. 

The Covid-19 pandemic, however, also created setbacks, forcing HRC sessions to take place in a hybrid format and making dialogue and cooperation between member states in many cases difficult.   

Khan said in a statement: "2021 has been a year of both significant challenges and of important achievements, and 2022 promises much of the same".  

Citing Covid-19 among the biggest global challenges throughout the year, she added: "Undoubtedly, we are a resilient council. We thrived in 2021, and we should continue to thrive in 2022, and onwards".