CSO Coalition Urges More Transparency by UN Secretary-General in Selection of Next Top Human Rights Commissioner

By Toby McIntosh

A coalition of 67 civil society organizations has called for more transparency in the selection of a new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In a March 22 letter the groups urged Secretary-General António Guterres to consult widely about the appointment. They also made a number of specific suggestions to open up the process:

  • publishing a formal set of selection criteria;
  • improving the global visibility of the formal call for candidatures;
  • publishing a clear timetable for the selection process that enables adequate assessment of candidates;
  • publishing an official list of candidates; and
  • requiring all candidates to produce vision statements.

The incumbent high commissioner, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan, announced in December of 2017 that he would not stay for a second four-year term.

The existing selection process “is no longer fit for purpose,” the groups wrote, explaining:

The call for applications lacks visibility, meaning it falls to attract a wide cross-section of good candidates. The basis of the selection process is unclear – what is the profile of the ideal candidate, against what criteria are the candidates measured, is there a geographic or gender dimension to the selection – and the process itself is untransparent (the screening of candidates takes place behind closed doors, candidates do not have the opportunity to present their ‘vision’ to the general public, there is little consultation with civil society, the shortlist of preferred candidates is not made public, the approval of the General Assembly is largely formulaic, and the process is vulnerable to the influence of a few powerful States). This latter point can have significant negative repercussions for perceptions of the chosen candidate’s independence and legitimacy, and for therefore for the selected person’s authority.

UN Spokesman Suggest No Changes Planned

A UN spokesman told Eye on Global Transparency, “For now, the policy on selecting the High Commissioner remains unchanged.”

Asked if “for now” was a hint of potential change, the spokesman replied: “No, I just stick that in on most of my responses, just out of caution. The point is that the policy hasn’t changed. If it ever does, I will inform you.”

Guterres Benefitted from Transparency

Marc Limon, Executive Director of the Human Rights Group based in Geneva, said he still hopes procedural changes will be made, noting that Guterres’s candidacy  was aided by reforms made in advance of his selection in 2016.

“He benefitted massively,” Limon said, “I think it is fair to say he wouldn’t have gotten the job if it hadn’t been opened up.”

The same  point was made by Yvonne Terlingen in a detailed June 2017 article describing the reforms and the forces behind them. A Better Process, a Stronger UN Secretary-General: How Historic Change Was Forged and What Comes Next appeared in Ethics & International Affairs.

Terlingen was a member of steering committee member of the 1 for 7 Billion – Find the Best UN Leader campaign and a senior policy adviser at the Institute for Global Policy. 1 for 7 Billion is a UK-based group that pushed for the reforms and continues to press for continued transparency in other personnel decisions.

A recent blog post by the campaign points to some encouraging signs.

An even wider need for reforms was also addressed by Terlingen, who wrote:

The more open, transparent, and inclusive process adopted for selecting the UN secretary-general is not only highly relevant for all senior and other UN appointments but also for its specialized agencies, notably the Bretton Woods institutions.