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UN Chief Should Name Bold Rights Advocate to Succeed Bachelet

High Commissioner for Human Rights Shouldn’t Flinch from Criticizing Major Powers

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the opening of the 43rd session of the Human Rights Council, at the UN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, February 24, 2020. © 2020 Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres will soon make one of the most important decisions of his tenure: naming a new high commissioner for human rights. He should nominate someone who has the courage to publicly criticize the human rights records of China, the United States, and other powerful governments.

The outgoing high commissioner, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, was widely and justifiably criticized by governments and rights groups after her recent visit to China for failing to condemn the Chinese government’s abysmal rights record, notably the persecution of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. Human Rights Watch has determined that abuses in Xinjiang amount to crimes against humanity.

Amid the furor over her declared “friendly trip” to China, Bachelet announced that she would not seek a second term after her current one ends in August. That put to rest speculation she might stay in the post, despite growing frustration that her office’s report on the Xinjiang situation remains unpublished. While Bachelet has sharply criticized abuses in Russia, the United States, and other powerful countries, she repeatedly let China off the hook.

The secretary-general nominates the high commissioner, and the UN General Assembly confirms the appointment. A UN spokesperson, when asked by a reporter if Guterres would take into consideration the criticism of Bachelet’s China visit when selecting her replacement, replied, “The short answer is no.”

But it’s critical the secretary-general recognizes and responds to this criticism.

In early 2020, Guterres announced his “Call to Action for Human Rights.” It was a long-overdue attempt to refocus the UN’s attention on human rights after three years of neglect. Human Rights Watch expressed support for the proposal and urged him to turn the rhetoric into action.

Guterres can now demonstrate he’s serious about promoting human rights by appointing a high commissioner who will do just that. It’s essential that he consult with the human rights community as he searches for a new high commissioner. The high commissioner is not a diplomat, but the world’s chief human rights advocate. Speaking out publicly about abuses around the world needs to take precedence over friendly dialogue with governments.

Courage is needed not just by the high commissioner in the future, but the secretary-general today.

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