UN: New human rights commissioner should take bold steps to confront abusers

Navanethem Pillay, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's presumptive nominee for the post of High Commissioner for Human Rights, should commit herself to be a voice for victims and human rights defenders worldwide, Human Rights Watch said yesterday. An announcement of Pillay's nomination is expected shortly, and will go to the UN General Assembly for approval.

Pillay is currently a judge with the appeals division of the International Criminal Court, and previously served as president and judge on the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). She was a lawyer and judge in South Africa before joining the ICTR.

"Judge Pillay has a distinguished career as a jurist on cases involving grave human rights abuse," said Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch. "Having heard the testimonies of those who have suffered from the worst crimes, she is well-placed to be a powerful advocate for human rights worldwide."

Secretary-General Ban selected Pillay from a short list of three candidates that also included Hina Jilani, who recently left the post of special representative of the secretary-general on human rights defenders, and Juan Mendez, current head of the International Center for Transitional Justice and former special adviser to the secretary-general on the prevention of genocide. Pillay will succeed Louise Arbour, who left the post of high commissioner at the end of June after serving for more than four years.

"The high commissioner must be willing to take on those who abuse human rights, no matter how powerful they may be," Roth said. "Engaging governments through quiet diplomacy has a place in human rights protection, but experience shows that there is no substitute for strong public advocacy on the part of the high commissioner."

Pillay will take up the high commissioner post at a critical moment for human rights protection worldwide, and within the United Nations in particular. The UN Security Council has failed to take needed steps to confront human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and Darfur, thousands continue to be subjected to arbitrary detention in the "war on terror," and states must be urged to implement newly adopted human rights standards relating to enforced disappearances, disability, and cluster munitions.

Despite those demands, the Office of the High Commissioner has been struggling to ensure that the UN lives up to a commitment made by world leaders at the 2005 World Summit to double the regular budget of the high commissioner's office within five years. Although key institutions of the United Nations relating to peace and security and development are based in New York, the Office of the High Commissioner's request for an assistant secretary-general post to ensure full representation in New York has not been met.

"Ban's expected nomination of Judge Pillay for high commissioner will be an important step, but the secretary-general must also ensure that his nominee has the tools she needs to do the job," Roth said. "The high commissioner's office is handicapped by not having an assistant secretary-general in New York and the staff needed to carry out its mission in the field. Ban should use his authority to ensure those needs are met."

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