Issue 138 - May 11 - Human Rights Appointment Questioned

New York, May 11, 2010 - Last week the UN Secretary-General and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights announced the appointment of Ivan Šimonović as Assistant Secretary-General (ASG) to lead the New York office of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). He was selected by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The post is the highest-level human rights position at UN Headquarters.

The May 3 appointment will make Šimonović the highest-level UN official from Croatia. The ASG position also is said to be the highest post occupied by a Croatian national in any international organization.

Croatia's prime minister called the appointment "a credit to [Šimonović] personally, as well as to the government and Croatia as a whole, because the choice of our minister for such a responsible position in the UN, which is related to human rights, proves that Croatia has reached high standards in protecting and promoting human rights."

However, the appointment has been criticized on a handful of counts, including that Šimonović lacks human rights expertise, that his ministry has been chastised by human rights groups for its handling of war crimes investigations, and that he has long worked for a government accused of human rights violations including ethnic cleansing. Turtle Bay concluded that Šimonović's appointment "reflects reluctance by Ban to place an outspoken advocate for human rights in such a politically delicate position."

It is not yet known when Šimonović will take up his new post.

Biographical Highlights

Ivan Šimonović held high-level posts in Croatia's ministry of foreign affairs from 1992-1996, during the administration of Franjo Tuđman, the first President of Croatia. He was a member of the country's delegation to the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord, which ended the Bosnian war. He is described as "one of the key negotiators" in those talks.

From 1997-2002 Šimonović was Croatia's Permanent Representative to the UN in New York. During this time, he served as "agent" of the Croatian government in its case in the International Court of Justice accusing the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia of genocide. Also while serving as his country's ambassador to the UN, Croatia was elected as a member of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and Šimonović served as President of the Council in 1999. A former UN delegate familiar with him during that time has praised his leadership skills, knowledge of the UN system, and initiative.

Most recently, Šimonović has led Croatia's Ministry of Justice since October 2008.


News reports indicate that Šimonović wishes to complete the judicial preparations for Croatia to enter the European Union before stepping down as justice minister. The Prime Minister "expressed the hope that Šimonović would continue as justice minister until the opening of accession negotiations with the European Commission." (Nevertheless, Šimonović's successor as justice minister was announced on May 4, the day after the UN appointment.)

Inner City Press queried on May 5 whether Šimonović would be unable to step into his new role until September, almost four months away. The spokesperson for the Secretary-General noted Ban's preference: "clearly, the aim is for Mr. Šimonović to start sooner rather than later."

Šimonović was expected to go to Geneva to meet with the High Commissioner for Human Rights and to discuss the timing. This meeting was scheduled for late last week.

Selection Process

The new position was approved by the General Assembly on December 23, 2009, to elevate the level of the High Commissioner for Human Rights' principal representative at UN Headquarters.  The duties of the ASG are to integrate human rights into key policy and management decisions and into the work of intergovernmental bodies based in New York, ensure that the New York Office activities are closely coordinated with OHCHR headquarters in Geneva, and assist the High Commissioner in building relations with all UN members, bodies, and stakeholders.

On January 25, the Office of the High Commissioner (Navanethem Pillay) initiated the selection process to fill the new post, with a Note Verbale to Member States and an announcement in The Economist outlining the position and qualifications. The requirements of the ASG included:

  • At least 20 years of professional experience in senior leadership positions in human rights or a related field,
  • An advanced university degree in human rights, law or relevant field,
  • Negotiation and diplomatic skills, and
  • Strong leadership and management abilities.

The application period closed on February 15. A selection panel then was established to narrow down the 128 candidates to select those who would be interviewed. The selection panel reportedly was comprised of: Navanethem Pillay (UN High Commissioner for Human Rights), Jessica Neuwirth (head of New York Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights), Patricia O'Brien (Under-Secretary-General and Legal Counsel of the UN), and Kyung-wha Kang (Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights).

The resulting shortlist of four candidates was forwarded to the Secretary-General for a final decision. The four individuals seriously considered by Ban's office were:

  • Karin Landgren (Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of the UN mission in Nepal)
  • Juan Méndez (former UN special advisor on the prevention of genocide)
  • Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro (Commissioner of the Organization of American States' Inter-American Commission on Human Rights)
  • Ivan Šimonović

It is unclear whether the selection panel had ranked Šimonović as their top recommendation. The Secretary-General's spokesperson said this week, "it was the panel that was selecting the final person for this position unanimously agreed that Mr. Šimonović was the man for the job."

The final step in the selection process reportedly was a video conference including the four candidates and Secretary-General Ban, "who discussed different international issues and human rights points with them."

The Secretary-General's spokesperson described the overall process as a "standard and rigorous one" and said, on May 4, "appointments of this kind, meaning senior appointments, are not undertaken lightly, and involve looking at a range of people and options. And there is a set pattern of interviews and references." He added (on May 5), "the selection process for a senior position like this is extremely rigorous and involves a number of candidates. And when you get to a shortlist of candidates, then clearly all are looked at extremely carefully before a decision is taken."

Critiques of Šimonović's Appointment

The most straightforward critique that has been made about the choice of Šimonović for the high-level human rights post is that he lacks human rights qualifications. "Senior UN officials and diplomats familiar with the contest" told Turtle Bay that the selection committee had "bypass[ed] several candidates with more extensive experience promoting human rights."

In addition, his ministry has come under scrutiny by human rights organizations for failing to "conduct prompt, impartial, independent and full investigations of war crimes" with the result of "failing to hold Croatian security forces accountable for crimes committed during the war." An Amnesty International report found that prosecutions taking place in Croatia since the end of the war have focused on crimes committed by the Serb population, while overlooking crimes committed by members of the Army and police forces. During Šimonović's time as Minister of Justice, ethnic Serbs in Croatia have been prosecuted disproportionately. Šimonović reportedly responds that he is not directly responsible for particular prosecutions.

Amnesty International added that the Ministry also had "failed to fully cooperate with the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague."

Finally, according to Inner City Press, human rights groups are concerned about Šimonović's long tenure in the Tuđman government, which Turtle Bay notes has been "accused of massive human rights violations, including the ethnic cleansing of ethnic Serbs in Krajina, during the Balkan conflict between 1991 and 1995."

Questioned about this history on May 5, the spokesperson for the Secretary-General commented on the rigorous nature of the selection process. Some media outlets seem to have interpreted this to mean that the Secretariat has made sure that Šimonović's "name is not connected to any abuses during the Yugoslav wars."

Critique of Selection Process

In a letter to High Commissioner Pillay on March 2, the UNelections Campaign commended her office for publicizing the selection process for the new Assistant Secretary-General.

To build on this positive step toward an accountable, transparent, and qualifications-based process, the UNelections Campaign called for the circulation of a shortlist of candidates, giving governments and other appropriate stakeholders adequate time to consider and comment on candidates prior to the final decision.

However, upon informally learning of the candidates, "The United States, European governments, and human rights advocates raised concern with Ban's office about the hiring process and expressed dissatisfaction with the shortlist, arguing that the competition should be reopened. But Ban and Pillay refused to reopen the process" (Turtle Bay).

The UNelections Campaign also stressed the need for a merit-based selection, with key qualifications for the candidates including recognition as a human rights leader, as well as a working familiarity with the UN and ability to operate effectively in a UN environment.

The concerns about the qualifications and appropriateness of the appointee, mentioned above, imply that merit was not the primary guiding principle in this selection process.