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UN: New Secretary-General Must Lead on Human Rights

Commitment to Stand Up to Human Rights Violators Required

(New York) - The incoming UN secretary-general must be prepared to speak out publicly against human rights abusers wherever they are found, however powerful they are, Human Rights Watch said today. The Security Council late yesterday afternoon conducted a straw poll which made it all but certain that it would recommend Ban Ki-moon, South Korea's minister of foreign affairs and trade, to the General Assembly for election to the post of secretary-general. The General Assembly has never rejected such a recommendation.

The Security Council is expected to vote formally on its secretary-general recommendation on Monday, October 9.

“Kofi Annan has been more supportive of human rights than any secretary-general in UN history, so the new secretary-general will have a tough act to follow,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “A key task for Annan’s successor will be to show he has the political courage to challenge powerful governments that abuse human rights.”

As an outspoken advocate for victims of human rights, Annan pressed governments to live up to the UN Charter’s commitment to human rights for all. He recognized that while quiet diplomacy and technical assistance have their place, some situations are so urgent and some governments so unresponsive that public pressure must be brought to bear by the secretary-general.

The incoming secretary-general must be similarly willing to take on those responsible for human rights abuses and to push the UN system to be stronger in the defense of human rights and civil society. To demonstrate the universal basis of human rights, he must be willing to speak out even when the offender is a powerful government, Human Rights Watch said.

As the crisis in Darfur continues, it is clear that the next secretary-general will be judged in important part by his ability to make the “responsibility to protect” people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity a reality. World leaders agreed to this principle at last year’s summit, but the deteriorating situation in Darfur illustrates the gap between stating a principle and having the political will and resources to act upon it. Ban’s challenge will be to close that gap.

“There is no more pressing issue for the new secretary-general’s attention than Darfur,” said Roth.

Through his reform efforts, including the creation of the new Human Rights Council, Annan also forced a rethinking of the UN’s human rights role. Yet his vision of human rights as the third pillar of the UN system, along with security and development, is far from realized.

The Human Rights Council has so far stumbled because of its relative fixation on Israel, while failing to take concrete steps to address other serious human rights situations as well. It has yet to show that it is willing to take firm, collective action against intransigent governments engaged in systemic rights violations.

The incoming secretary-general must work to ensure that the Human Rights Council is both more credible and more effective than its predecessor. He should also support the ongoing expansion of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and continue Annan’s effort to bring human rights into the mainstream of other parts of the UN.

This is also a crucial moment to address endemic failures by the UN system in women’s rights, an issue which has been perennially overshadowed by other concerns. Remedying this deficit will require an effort to bring women’s rights into the mainstream of the UN’s work, as well as enhanced resources and a greatly improved UN infrastructure for women’s rights.

“The new secretary-general shouldn’t just follow in Annan’s footsteps on human rights,” Roth said. “He should advance an ambitious human rights agenda, including on issues where the UN continues to lag, such as women’s rights.”

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