The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, experts, human rights defenders, and representatives of major international human rights organizations came together in New York City to mark the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights (JBI) and to analyze the challenges currently faced by the High Commissioner. Addresses were delivered by Ms. Pillay; by Michael Ignatieff, scholar and former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada; by Harold Koh, Legal Adviser to the US Department of State; and by Bertrand Ramcharan, formerly Deputy/Acting UN High Commissioner.
Convened on February 7 and 8 by the Jacob Blaustein Institute, in collaboration with the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, the conference, entitled The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Conscience for the World, explored the role of the High Commissioner; assessed the accomplishments of and challenges faced by the current and five previous High Commissioners; and recommended strategies to increase the High Commissioner’s effectiveness in preventing human rights violations in the future.
Several conference participants, including Navi Pillay, commended the key role played by JBI in pressing for and ensuring the creation of the High Commissioner post in 1993. Pillay also discussed the way her office’s efforts are advanced by UN human rights mechanisms composed of independent experts: “We have a number of … experts with us here today, including of course Felice Gaer [director of JBI], who was elected to the Committee Against Torture in 2000, and in that capacity, has made a profound contribution, in particular by ensuring that freedom from torture is also defined against the singular experiences of women and girls…”
The full text of the High Commissioner’s prepared remarks are available on her Office’s website.
The conference convened at a pivotal moment for human rights protection efforts at the United Nations. In his address, Michael Ignatieff noted that the High Commissioner’s office has developed its fact-finding capacity to the point where since mid-March 2011, it has been seen as the “gold standard” on reporting about human rights violations perpetrated by the Syrian government. At the same time, despite High Commissioner Pillay’s characterization of Syria’s conduct as constituting crimes against humanity and her call for the Security Council to refer it to the International Criminal Court, Russia and China have blocked action by the Council, and the government of Syria continues to commit gross human rights abuses with impunity. Ignatieff also highlighted a number of other serious challenges faced by the High Commissioner – including carrying out the post’s wide-ranging mandate in the face of perennially insufficient resources, maintaining the legitimacy of the post even when other components of the UN system act inappropriately or display bias, and determining which human rights issues to prioritize. He urged conference participants to devise strategies for addressing them, recognizing that there have been conflicts between the roles of the High Commissioner as insider politician in the UN and as an outsider and global spokesman for human rights.
Harold Koh, Legal Adviser to the Secretary of State, spoke of the qualities needed in a High Commissioner, particularly to raise the profile of the subject of human rights globally.