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United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks to the press at UN Headquarters in New York, November 20, 2020.  © 2020 Lev Radin/Sipa via AP Images

This year, United Nations member countries will decide who will be the organization’s next secretary-general when Antonio Guterres’ term ends on December 31.  Whoever assumes the role on January 1, 2022 should fully commit to improving the world body’s performance on upholding human rights. It’s crucial that the selection process is competitive and transparent. 

News agencies are reporting that Guterres will seek a second five-year term. If confirmed, he should not be handed a new term on a silver platter. The process should include multiple candidates who all publicly present concrete plans to improve the UN, including how to reinforce its human rights pillar at a time when some governments are actively working to undermine it.

Guterres’ performance on human rights over the past four years has been mixed, largely characterized by an unwillingness to publicly criticize rights-abusing governments by name and a preference for closed-door diplomacy.

Human Rights Watch and other organizations have called on Guterres to publicly urge the Chinese government to release over a million Turkic Muslims arbitrarily detained in so-called education camps and appoint an envoy to monitor rights abuses in China -- he has not done so. He has been reluctant to use his authority to launch investigations, as in the case of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, or name alleged perpetrators when he heeded pressure from member states and authorized a limited inquiry into attacks on humanitarian facilities in Syria.

Guterres took an important step last year when announcing his Call to Action on Human Rights.  While that pledge says all the right things about improving the UN’s commitment to human rights, its implementation remains very much a work in progress. 

The selection of the secretary-general is largely in the hands of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, as the council nominates a leading candidate for members of the General Assembly to confirm. UN member states should be clear that they will only consider candidates who make credible commitments to resist the efforts of governments seeking to sweep human rights under the carpet.

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