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UN: Promoting Rights Key to UN Chief Guterres’ 2nd Term

Secretary-General Needs to Denounce Powerful Abusive Governments

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

(New York) –  United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres should energetically promote human rights in his second term by using the UN bully-pulpit to call out powerful governments responsible for systematic abuses, Human Rights Watch said today.

The UN Security Council on June 8, 2021, officially recommended Guterres for a second term, which the General Assembly is expected to confirm. The council’s decision concluded an uncompetitive and largely opaque process in which it did not seriously consider any other candidates for a position held by nine men over 75 years.

“Guterres’s first term was defined by public silence regarding human rights abuses by China, Russia, and the United States and their allies,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “With his reelection behind him, Guterres should use the next five years to become a strong vocal advocate for rights. His recent willingness to denounce abuses in Myanmar and Belarus should expand to include all governments deserving condemnation, including those that are powerful and protected.”

Since taking office in January 2017, Guterres has rarely criticized or called for accountability by specific governments or their leaders. He adopted a non-confrontational approach toward US President Donald Trump’s efforts to sideline human rights by undermining multilateral organizations like the UN and embracing authoritarian leaders. He adopted a similar approach to crimes against humanity in Xinjiang by China’s government, now the UN’s second biggest financial contributor, after the US, and to war crimes by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

He has also been reluctant to criticize abuses by Russia’s government, which has frequently used its veto power in the Security Council to block human rights-related resolutions on Syria and elsewhere. Guterres should also exercise stronger leadership against the global pushback on women’s rights, Human Rights Watch said.

For advocacy regarding the most severe rights issues, the secretary-general should not merely defer to the UN high commissioner for human rights but be willing to use his position to criticize specific governments, Human Rights Watch said. Guterres’ recent strong public statements in support of human rights for the people of Myanmar, Belarus, and Israel/Palestine sent the message that the UN stands with them. He should do the same for the victims of grave abuses in China, Ethiopia, Egypt, and elsewhere.

Guterres should build on the successes of his first term. In 2020, he warned governments not to misuse the Covid-19 crisis to trample on basic rights. He energetically supported international vaccine equality and condemned vaccine hoarding by wealthy countries. He has also continued his predecessor’s commitment to combating climate change and vigorously advocated against the creation of fully autonomous weapons, known as “killer robots.”

Guterres should do more to strengthen the UN’s institutional support for human rights, Human Rights Watch said. In the first years of Guterres’ tenure, his predecessor’s Human Rights up Front initiative to protect civilians languished, sending a message throughout the UN system that human rights advocacy was again subordinate to maintaining friendly relations with abusive governments. In 2020 Guterres announced a new initiative, the Call to Action on Human Rights, which if combined with the UN’s renewed commitment to Human Rights up Front could make human rights a greater UN priority. 

Guterres should pursue these human rights initiatives in his second term:

  • Initiate human rights inquiries without explicit mandates from the UN Security Council or General Assembly as past secretaries-general have done. Guterres declined to do so following the Saudi government’s murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi;
  • Use the authority under article 99 of the UN Charter whenever appropriate to bring neglected human rights crises to the Security Council, such as abuses by separatist fighters and government forces in Cameroon and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang;
  • Ensure that UN agencies and peacekeeping operations are accountable for severe UN operational failures linked to human rights abuses, as occurred in Haiti and Kosovo, and that victims receive prompt, adequate reparations for the harm suffered;
  • Ensure individual accountability for UN failures to protect rights such as those identified in the Petrie Report on Sri Lanka and the Rosenthal Report on Myanmar;
  • Adopt strong measures to end sexual exploitation and abuse by UN personnel and ensure accountability and appropriate redress for these abuses;
  • Ensure that the annual “list of shame” accurately reflects UN evidence of violations against children during armed conflicts, and list or re-list serial violators like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Myanmar for ongoing grave violations against children.

The 2021 election for secretary-general was devoid of competition, although Guterres recently met with the General Assembly and Security Council concerning his candidacy. Despite his stated commitment to engage with civil society, he did not make himself available to human rights and other nongovernmental organizations to discuss his record as secretary-general. The few questions taken from advocacy groups during an interactive dialogue with the General Assembly came across as a formality.

In future elections, UN member states should insist on a more transparent process for selecting the secretary-general in line with the 2016 General Assembly reforms. These include public debates with multiple candidates. UN members committed to gender equity should also consider nominating strong female candidates. The 1 for 7 Billion campaign, which Human Rights Watch supports, advocates reforms that would ensure an “open, inclusive, and merit-based selection process” for the secretary-general.

“When he steps down as secretary-general, Guterres will be judged by his willingness to call out the very states that elected him,” Roth said. “For Guterres to be remembered as a champion for the human rights of oppressed people, he will need to jettison silence and inaction and be willing to tell all governments, including the most powerful, what they don’t want to hear.”


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