Nazhat Shameem Khan: UN’s outgoing rights chief on Covid, climate and the might of small states

Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan holds a special session on the grave human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, May 2021. (Credit: UN Photo)

As one of the busiest years in the history of the Human Rights Council draws to a close, its outgoing president Nazhat Shameem Khan looks back on the successes and challenges of the past 12 months, from fighting for vaccine equity to tackling climate change, and fighting for the voices of smaller states to be heard.

Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan of Fiji was elected president of the UN Human Rights Council in January 2021 by a landslide, after a contentious leadership bid left the body temporarily without a leader for the first time in its 15-year history.

Despite last minute bids for the post by Bahrain and Uzbekistan, Khan was seemingly a shoo-in for the job. And after one of the busiest years in the council’s history, without a single session cancelled or postponed due to Covid-19 and 176 resolutions adopted spanning climate change, conflict and vaccine equity, there’s no doubt she has proved herself a steadfast leader.

A former prosecutor who served as Fiji’s first female high court judge before joining the country’s mission in Geneva as ambassador in 2014, she has overseen a plethora of human rights initiatives backed by the pacific island nation, from abolishing Fiji’s use of the death penalty to tackling climate change worldwide.

Since it joined the council in 2019, Fiji has backed investigations into reported rights abuses in Venezuela, the Philippines, Belarus, Syria and Yemen, with Khan herself holding the vice presidency. The country’s strong record for calling out rights abuses has drawn opposition from the council’s autocratic members such as Russia and China, although Fiji’s own rights record has been scrutinised by the body in the past over issues such as media freedoms and policy brutality.

But when Khan took up the gavel at the body at the start of this year, her victory was welcomed as a victory for those states who believe in the council’s power to hold rights abusers to account.

The first time a small island developing state (SIDS) held the presidency, Khan’s appointment was also a victory for smaller nations who for a long time have struggled to have their voices heard at international institutions like the UN.

“When a SIDS presidency took the podium for the very first time I think it was a matter of pride for every small country in the world,” says Khan, speaking to Geneva Solutions from the Palais des Nations in Geneva on her last day as president of the council.

“I think the fact that a small island state from the Pacific held the presidency of the council shows that we can do it. This leadership is very significant because it encourages other small states to aspire to that, but it’s also helped to change the conversation at the council.”

The “conversation” Khan is referring to relates to human rights issues that are of greatest importance to small states such as Fiji, one of the most urgent being climate change. Since the Fiji mission opened its doors in Geneva 2014, the country has worked tirelessly to push climate change higher up the UN human rights agenda.

“Climate change is the subject which has the greatest interest in Fiji,” says Khan. “And when we came here in 2014, we found to our astonishment that in fact there was very little conversation about climate change and human rights, certainly in the council. So we set out to remedy that, because we knew that it was that conversation that was going to help our human rights journey on the ground in Fiji.”

Along with other smaller nations bearing the brunt of climate change such as Costa Rica, the Marshall Islands and the Bahamas, Fiji has helped bring international recognition to climate change as a human rights issue, contributing to decades of advocacy since environmental rights were first debated at the council in the 1990s.

“It's the small island developing states and least developed countries (LDCs) which not only have to confront climate change on a daily basis, but also have to really grapple with how much of their GDP is actually being used on climate change adaptation,” she says. “So the conversation on climate change and human rights is something small countries and LDCs really want to talk about.”

This work reached a landmark achievement this year when the Human Rights Council declared that having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right and appointed a UN expert to oversee how climate change was impacting people’s rights in countries around the world.

Khan says overseeing the creation of this right was her “proudest moment” during the Presidency.

“When you become a member of the council you have to make commitments, and one of [Fiji’s] commitments was to work towards the creation of a right to a healthy and safe environment,” she says. “So it was a matter of great pride that in the last year of our membership we saw the creation of this right under Fiji's presidency, which was really quite an extraordinary moment.”

Climate change has undoubtedly never been more prominent on the UN agenda than over the past year, with the two resolutions passed just weeks before the international COP26 climate conference in Glasgow brought the devastating impacts of climate change into the spotlight.

But it has been just one of many issues that has occupied the Council’s attention during Khan’s presidency, which she took up at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Travel restrictions and concerns over the spread of the virus have forced the body to adapt the way it does business, making in-person meetings largely impossible and necessitating the move to a virtual format that continues today.

Despite these challenges, the body has had one of its busiest years in history, with three regular sessions and a record five special sessions on urgent human rights situations in Myanmar, Afghanistan, the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), Sudan and most recently Ethiopia.

“I am proud of the fact that we continued throughout the pandemic,” says Khan.

“We went on to adopt resolutions which were really important for the world – resolutions on access to vaccines, which is such an important conversation now. Resolutions on the right of women and girls to health and on country-specific situations.

“We [said] to ourselves ‘We will not allow coronavirus to defeat the council. On the one hand, we must discuss coronavirus and its impact on human rights. On the other hand, we must continue to sit.’ And I think that’s a very proud achievement.”

Despite these wins, the council has also drawn criticism from a number of angles this year. For example, members were accused of failing to go far enough to investigate rights abuses in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August, although the decision not to establish a special investigative mechanism for the country was later overturned.

A vote backed by Russia and other countries to shut down the body’s war crimes investigations in Yemen also drew consternation throughout the international community, marking the first time a resolution has been defeated in the council’s history.

Many of the council’s more acrimonious meetings can be attributed to the growing tensions between its members, most notably countries such as Russia and China and the United States, who rejoined the body as an observer this year soon after the election of President Joe Biden.

There have long been concerns that diplomatic head-butting between world powers could derail its work. However, on the contrary, Khan argues diversity of opinion and debate is one of the council’s greatest strengths.

“We cannot expect two countries or five countries or 10 or 47 to think the same on human rights issues,” she says. “But I think it's exactly the ability of the council to hear these robust views and force countries to listen to each other that is its greatest strength.”

There are many people who argue that the conversation in multilateral organisations is still fundamentally about powerful countries, leaving less space for smaller states. To a great extent it can be, says Khan, especially when countries exercise their power of veto or where the  view taken by a powerful country can stifle those of others.

But she argues there’s no space for these tactics at the council.  “The council is a democratically structured organisation where if we don't get a consensus we vote, and I think that has been a very important difference.”

“The most important thing is that no one player should stop the debate, and no one player should be able to stop the passing of a resolution.”

To uphold the democratic process, however, it's vital that everyone has a voice, she says – from small states such as Fiji to civil society organisations. The pandemic has prevented many organizations from interacting with the council as they usually do, watering down their influence and leaving them out of important decisions and debates.

The outgoing ambassador says there is still much more work to be done to “level the playing field” at the body to ensure all voices are heard. “Because with the greatest goodwill, often small countries and small players are eclipsed when it comes to the bigger bargaining power of larger countries in the negotiation rooms,” she adds.

Providing a platform for civil society is a key function of the body that must be upheld. Khan tells the story of one mother brought to the council during a debate on the human rights situation in Nicaragua.

“She was talking about what happened to her son who died in a human rights crisis in her country, and her message was so compelling there was not a dry eye on the floor,” says Khan. “That one message did more to change policy in that moment than years of work. We have to keep those voices in the council and we have to listen to them. ”

Her successor Federico Villegas of Argentina has pledged to continue her work. In his first speech following the announcement of his presidency earlier this month he set out plans to ensure the council is 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 organizations in improving human rights at the global and national levels ".

As Khan waves goodbye to Geneva and prepares for her new role as deputy prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC), the self-described “dangerous optimist” says the past year has taught her invaluable lessons that will travel with her to The Hague - particularly the importance of letting everybody have a say when it comes to their human rights.

“We have been doing a lot of listening this year,” she says. “Listening to countries which often complain that no one's listening. And I have made it my personal journey to ensure that I don't lock anyone out of a debate or a conversation. ”