Issue 49 - March 10 - UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to Step Down in June

New York, March 10, 2008 - The UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed last week that she would not seek to renew her four-year tenure when it expires on June 30, 2008.

Under-Secretary-General Louise Arbour (Canada) reportedly confirmed rumors of her departure to her staff on March 5. In a speech to the UN Human Rights Council on Friday, March 7, she made the decision official, saying, "This will be my last annual report as I have informed the secretary-general that I will not seek a second term when my mandate expires at the end of June 2008." (Click here to read her statement, which was delivered in French.)

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday that he learned of her decision "with great regret.... I have been most impressed by her extraordinary courage, energy and integrity in speaking out forcefully on human rights, which is among the UN's most important mandates.... She has never hesitated to incur the criticism of States or other entities by highlighting the victims of abuses and the inadequacies of legal systems everywhere."

Tension between OHCHR and Human Rights Council

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was established by the General Assembly in 1994, with a separate mandate from the UN Commission on Human Rights. In 2006 the GA decided to replace the Commission with a new Human Rights Council. The mandates of the HRC and the OHCHR remained separate, but the work is interrelated. Staff of the OHCHR serve as the Secretariat for the Council and support its work.

The influence of the High Commissioner is said to have faltered since the departure of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who appointed Arbour in 2004. Arbour's resignation reportedly comes at a moment of increasing tension for the Office. Several Arab and Asian states, including Egypt and Sri Lanka, have called for an "executive committee" to control the High Commissioner's work. Arbour recently commented to reporters, "One member state even went as far as to suggest that the commission should not be allowed to open any field presence without the approval of the Council," and she thought it crucial to preserve OHCHR's independence.

Secretary-General Ban recently issued a statement warning the HRC to respect the "independent and distinct mandates" established by the General Assembly for both bodies.

Arbour's Work Praised and Criticized

Over the course of her four-year term, Arbour frequently faced criticism for her opposition to the use of torture and her supposedly disproportionate efforts against U.S. and Israeli military policy. She met with a particularly vitriolic response last December, when she reportedly expressed approval of an Arab Human Rights Charter that equated Zionism with racism. Arbour later qualified her support, declaring some of the Charter's provisions "incompatible."

At the same time, Arbour has been accused of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in other powerful countries, such as Russia and China, which hold considerable sway over the UN system. Arbour has said that she finds a behind-the-scenes approach to these countries more effective even while it doesn't "make me and a lot of others feel good." In addition, Arbour has taken criticism for the HRC's decision to reduce scrutiny of countries such as Cuba (which holds a seat on the Council) and Belarus, despite the fact that the HRC operates independently of the High Commissioner.

Although Arbour reportedly has expressed frustration with "taking the heat from so many sides," she told reporters on Friday that the criticism she had encountered was "inevitable." She said that she was leaving the job for family reasons, not because of the pressures of the position.

Human rights advocates and several UN Member States have praised Arbour for her tenacious critiques of torture and her successful efforts to expand human rights monitoring and reporting around the world. She received plaudits during last week's Council meetings from Spain, Germany, and Sweden for her "tireless work in favor of human rights."

A representative of Amnesty International said, "The criticism she receives is a tribute to the good work that she's been doing" and that the organization regretted her decision to leave. "She's brought direction to the office. She's brought resources. She's been outspoken. She's been unflinching in challenging human rights violations in big and powerful countries as well as in countries not so big and not so powerful." Human Rights Watch too said that Arbour was "excellent" and they were "very sad to see her go.... She built up the office, expanded it into the field."

Before being appointed High Commissioner, Arbour was a UN war crimes prosecutor and is credited with the indictment of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Arbour said she will continue to serve until the end of her current four-year term on June 30, and will return to Canada on July 1.

Selection of Arbour's Successor

The UN Secretary-General is responsible for appointing the High Commissioner, who then must be confirmed by the UN General Assembly. Ban's spokesperson, Michele Montas, said on Friday that the Secretary-General would find a replacement for Arbour by the time she left office - her mandate expires on June 30, 2008. Montas did not directly answer when asked whether Ban had any candidates yet to replace Arbour.

An Amnesty International statement issued today, March 10, called on the Secretary-General "to ensure that her successor is of a similar high international standard with a proven track-record as a strong and independent advocate for human rights." It also urged Ban to select the new High Commissioner "by means of a transparent process that includes thorough consultation with all stakeholders, including civil society."

As for criteria for the selection of her replacement, Arbour only noted that the Office "operates in a very law-based environment," and a "legal understanding" would be crucial.

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour (March 7)

Statement by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (March 7)

Statement by Canada's Foreign Ministry (March 7)

Statement by Amnesty International (March 10)

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