Saturday, March 8, 2008

Top Human Rights Official Calls it Quits

Under strong pressure from Washington, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour of Canada, has decided to step down in June, at the end of her first four-year term. That makes it an unbroken record for those who have held the office: none has lasted more than a single term. Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil, Arbour's predecessor, lasted less than a year: he was appointed on 12 September 2002 and killed in Baghdad on 19 August 2003.

De Mello was in Baghdad at the request of his long-time friend,
Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who had asked him to put aside the Human Rights job temporarily and go as his Special Representative to post-invasion Iraq. In Baghdad, de Mello ran afoul of J. Paul Bremer III, the retired diplomat (and ex-Kissinger Associates executive), who had also been hastily sent to Iraq to take charge of the occupation. De Mello refused an office in the hermetically secure "Green Zone" where the American top brass held court, ignored advice not to have his office fronting a busy street, and spent his time establishing contacts with a wide range of Iraqis. On 19 August, as he was nearing the end of his short-term assignment, a truck bomb destroyed the office and killed him, along with 22 others.

De Mello's predecessor, Mary Robinson of Ireland, lived out her term (1997--2002), but also left under American pressure. Her office had helped organize the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, from which the United States and Israel walked out, complaining that it had been hijacked by the Arab-Islamic States.

The first High Commissioner for Human rights, Jose Ayala-Lasso of Ecuador, who spent his time establishing the office and making a series of low key visits to world capitals, left after one term because he was judged a disappointment; Western countries wanted someone in the post who would rock boats and confront bad guys. It did him no good to point out that when the June 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna agreed on the post, it was on the explicit understanding that human rights would no longer be the political football it was during the "Cold War." The conference had acted on the assumption that the whole UN approach to promoting human rights would change; there would be no more finger-pointing at offending countries; the High Commissioner would lead the effort to deal quietly and concretely with problems.

It should probably be clear by now that there is no hope of realizing that aim. For the foreseeable future, we should expect -- indeed we should hope -- that those appointed to the job will displease everyone. Not to do so would imply a lack of integrity.

No comments: