August 11, 2022 | Policy Brief

Time for Change at the UN’s Human Rights Division

August 11, 2022 | Policy Brief

Time for Change at the UN’s Human Rights Division

UN Secretary-General António Guterres is due to appoint a new UN high commissioner for human rights to replace Michele Bachelet, whose term expires on August 31. The new commissioner will have an opportunity to change the UN human rights division’s longstanding practice of whitewashing human right abuses by China and other authoritarian regimes while unjustly criticizing Israel.

The high commissioner is the top UN human rights official, opining on human rights worldwide while directly supervising a large staff, a $350 million annual budget, and some two dozen offices around the world. Her office also serves as the secretariat for the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), responsible both for providing recommendations to the council and for helping implement its decisions.

Bachelet’s term began in 2018 with a commitment to investigate what Secretary of State Antony Blinken has since termed China’s “genocide” of its Uighur minority in Xinjiang province. During a May 2022 trip to China, however, Bachelet repeated Beijing’s false claims that it had ended its Uighur surveillance and re-education program. Bachelet has yet to publicly release a report that her office has written on these atrocities. Amidst widespread criticism of her trip to China, Bachelet announced she would not seek a second term.

Bachelet has also faced criticism for firing Emma Reilly, a whistleblower working for her office who alleged that Bachelet and previous high commissioners wrongfully handed the Chinese government the names of Uighur dissidents, reportedly leading to their arrest, torture, or, in one case, death. Numerous whistleblower organizations have credibly asserted that Bachelet’s office unjustifiably overturned a UN ethics panel finding in favor of Reilly and then wrongly terminated her.

Bachelet’s record on Israel is also problematic. In February 2020, Bachelet supported the global anti-Israel boycott campaign by publishing a list of 112 companies operating in the West Bank. Most of the companies appeared on the list simply for engaging in generic business activities in the disputed territory.

In addition, Bachelet has presided over a series of prejudiced commissioners and rapporteurs who unfairly excoriated Israel. These include the UN special rapporteur for Palestinian rights and all three members of the ongoing UN commission of inquiry into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of these members was Miloon Kothari, whose recent comments criticizing the “Jewish lobby” and questioning Israel’s UN membership were denounced as antisemitic by the United States and more than a dozen other countries. Bachelet has remained silent on Kothari’s statements.

The rumored top three contenders to replace Bachelet are UN bureaucrats without extensive records on either China or Israel. However, one of the contenders, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ilze Brands Kehris, criticized Israel for defending itself during the Great March of Return, a 2018-2019 Hamas-led campaign that saw thousands of Gazans (including women and children) rioting at the border with Israel. Hamas designed the march to overwhelm Israel’s border defenses and thereby enable armed militants to enter the country.

Yet rather than condemn Hamas, Kehris criticized Israel’s use of force to defend its border and said she found it “deeply disturbing that the Israel Defense Forces continue to view the Great March of Return protests as events that cannot be detached from the ongoing armed conflict with armed groups in Gaza.” This assertion is consistent with the UNHRC’s record of dismissing Israeli security concerns and ignoring Palestinian forces’ extensive use of human shields.

Congress and the Biden administration should encourage Guterres to select a replacement for Bachelet who would end the UN human rights division’s whitewashing of China and unjust criticism of Israel. The United States contributes 22 percent of the division’s budget. Washington should leverage these funds to ensure change.

Orde Kittrie is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where David May is a senior research analyst. They both contribute to FDD’s China Program and Israel Program. For more analysis from the authors and the China and Israel programs, please subscribe HERE. Follow the authors on Twitter @ordefk and @DavidSamuelMay. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


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