High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva, Switzerland 2002-2003
• New field and new challenges.
• Uneasy relationship of outgoing High Commissioner with some major powers.
• New Office and limited resources but high expectations
• Major Human Rights Violations and the war on terror.
Prevailing Human Rights Situation in early 2000
1. The Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was established in September 1997. The appointment of Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, as High Commissioner for Human Rights in the same month, raised the profile of the hitherto little known office by her often strongly-worded public statements. This did not endear her to some of the major powers. The office lacked the resources and capacity to cope with the formidable challenges in many countries with reported high human rights violations records and culture of impunity. The world expected the office to address these violations and bring the perpetrators to justice and hold all governments accountable to their citizens. Mary Robinson left OHCHR in June 2002. Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed Sergio Vieira de Mello to succeed her.
2. Sergio took over as High Commissioner for Human Rights in September 2002. This was a departure from his well grounded world of refugees, humanitarian action and diplomacy. His appointment was received with mixed feelings. There were those who felt he did not have the required background and experience in human rights and the courage to speak out to warrant occupying the position. Kenneth Roth, the Director of Human Rights Watch put it more bluntly, "The challenge he faces is to prove that he will stand up to governments and be an unwavering voice on behalf of the victims of human rights abuse." Others were convinced that he would bring his vast experiences in managing crises and people and his ability in dealing with authorities to turn the office around. Sergio's answer to critics and supporters alike was, "You can believe me when I say that each time it becomes necessary to speak out on an issue, I will do so in my own way, and it's too bad if it makes some people unhappy." True to his word, he would, as events would later prove, speak out his mind boldly on major human rights issues whenever he felt it was the right thing to do.
3. Sergio approached his new assignment with his characteristic pragmatism, saying "Universal and abstract concepts are only valuable if one can translate them to a practical application. That is what I will try to do." His vision for the Office was that of a quasi-independant UN Agency in the mode of UNHCR. He proceeded to reform the Office by introducing a number of actions. Shocked by the paltry budget that it received, he introduced a number of cost-cutting measures which were not accepted readily by all the staff. He immediately appealed to the Secretary General and Donors to support his office. The response was rapid and substantive. He encouraged rotation between the Headquarters and the field. Faithful to his esteem for field operations, he quickly paid special attention to the forty field offices. One of his first actions was to pay official visits in January 2003 to Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. His visit to DRC coincided with the peak of widespread human rights abuses by the rebel factions as well as the Congolese Government. He criticized both sides publicly in the strongest terms. On his return, he pressed the UN Security Council and Donors to help bring the flagrant atrocities to an end, partly by boosting the UN Peacekeeping Mission(MONUC) presence then thinly staffed on the ground by the Uruguayan contingent. Several governments led by the French responded quickly by contributing troops to MONUC.
4. The history of the Human Rights Commission has been one of unrealized dreams and expectations. Their deliberations and resolutions were marked by acrimony, lack of reality and inaction. The relationship between the Commission and the OHCHR is supposed to be complementary and mutually reinforcing. Sergio's relationship with the body was not an easy one. It reflected the natural bipolar repelling phenomenon between a pragmatic realist and a theoretical rhetorician. In his first address as High Commissioner to the Commission at its 59th Session on 25th April 2003 in Geneva, Sergio clearly outlined the difference between his Office and the Commission and appealed for mutual understanding and cooperation. He urged the Commission to produce realistic, implementable resolutions that can be monitored closely. He advised the body to avoid politicizing its work and drop “traditional denunciations" that are usually never applied, from its annual resolutions.
5. Sergio's tenure in OHCHR was also marked by two burning human rights issues. He felt strongly and spoke openly of the failure of the UN and the International Community to respond robustly and put a stop to blatent human rights abuses in Iraq. While he did not condone terrorism, he felt and expressed the strong view, publicly and even to President George Bush, that the manner in which the “war on terrorism" was approached, planned and executed, would have a negative impact on human rights. Events would later prove him right. A former senior UNHCR staff, Ghassan Arnaout, paid tribute to Sergio in these words, "His intellectual foundations and his own personal sensitivity compelled him to espouse all of the noble causes, to transcend and to refuse forcefully and with conviction all prejudices concerning race, culture and religion.
Indignant over the wave of Islamphobia that had swept through the Western world after the tragic event of 11th September 2001, Sergio told me of his intention and determination to organize a large conference in order to denounce this phenomenon and to invite Muslim nations to publicly emphasize their belief in the Islamic values of respect for human beings, in the hope of fostering peace and reconciliation, he personally intended to lead and participate in the discussions and debate." Cruel fate could not allow him to fulfill this dream.
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