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Human Rights Challenges for the New UN Secretary-General

Letter to Incoming Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Published in: The Hankyoreh

Your Excellency,

We congratulate you on your appointment to UN secretary-general. Your leadership comes at a time in which the United Nation’s role in human rights has never been more important.

As the leader of the UN system and as its chief advocate, it is vital that you speak out in defense of human rights—even when the violator of these rights is a powerful government. Your early and public attention to human rights will send a signal to abusive governments, that the UN secretary-general will be a voice for the victims of human rights violations worldwide

Like your predecessors, your success as secretary-general will be judged at least in part by the UN’s response to the most horrendous crimes the world faces during your tenure. World leaders have agreed that they share a “responsibility to protect” populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity, a principle that arose in part from the UN’s failure in Rwanda. One of your most important challenges will be to turn this principle into reality in places like Darfur.

The UN’s apparent impotence in the face of the terrible international crimes continuing in Darfur, and Sudan’s refusal to allow a UN peacekeeping force raise concerns that the commitment to protect people facing such atrocities is mere rhetoric. As secretary-general, you should use the platform of your office to shine a sustained spotlight on the plight of the people of Darfur. You could also play an important role by encouraging African and Arab states to set aside concerns of regional solidarity and support stronger steps, including sanctions aimed at ending abuses in Darfur by the government of Sudan and securing its consent to the peacekeeping force.

In Asia, too, you can play an important role. China must be pressed to halt numerous violations of human rights at home, and to place human rights at the center of its foreign policy, in part by publicly acknowledging that grave human rights abuses merit concerted international action. On North Korea, the international focus has largely been on nuclear issues. But we strongly believe that future efforts to promote stability on the Korean Peninsula must address human rights and humanitarian issues as well. We expect you to prioritize these concerns. Without such attention from the international community, there is no reason to believe that North Korea will improve its abysmal human rights record.

In no area has the UN’s promise on human rights fallen as far short as it has on women’s rights, including such basic issues as access to education. Here, too, however, there are opportunities. A recent UN panel laid bare the deficiencies of the existing system, and called for a more effective approach. Creating a new unified agency for the UN’s women’s rights work—a “new UN for women”—could become your signature achievement, with historic implications.

The UN’s premier human rights body is the new Human Rights Council. While the potential of the council is great, its performance so far has been deeply disappointing. With states that have poor human records leading the charge, the council has avoided criticizing even the most abusive governments, and has failed to take concrete action regarding human rights violations in places like Burma, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe, or Colombia. We hope you will help rally support for a broad cross-regional coalition of “friends of human rights” within the council. We ask you to treat it as an urgent task to counter those who are actively working to weaken this new body.

We wish you success in your endeavors.


Kenneth Roth
Executive Director

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