The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has announced that she will not be seeking a second term in office after her current one expires at the end of August. This ended many weeks of speculation surrounding her future in the position as a result of her recent visit to China. Rights groups, as well as Western governments, criticised her for not doing enough to act against alleged abuses against Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the Western region of Xinjiang.
Bachelet’s long-awaited trip – the first in 17 years by a UN rights chief – took her to Xinjiang, where China is alleged to have detained more than a million people, as well as carried out forced sterilisation of women and coerced labour. China denies all accusations of abuse in Xinjiang and says its actions in the region were a necessary response to “extremism”. To address the criticism that she had not done enough, Bachelet said that while in China she had “also raised concerns regarding the human rights situation of the Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, including broad arbitrary detention and patterns of abuse, both in the VETC (Vocational Education and Training Centres) system and in other detention facilities”
The post of High Commissioner for Human Rights typically faces heavy political pressure from countries around the world, and, while it can be held for two terms, nearly all of Bachelet’s predecessors have avoided staying on for more than one term. Now the process to select Michelle Bachelet’s replacement has begun, there will be discussions around what her replacement will need to prioritise.
The UK was a founding member of the UN Human Rights Council in 2006 and has continues to be a vocal advocate of its work. The UK has been elected to the UN Human Rights Council for the term 2021-2023, so is currently serving its fifth term. It is likely to play a key role as the new UN human rights chief starts their term.
Below are some of the areas on which Bachelet’s replacement needs to take most urgent action.
The Human Cost of Climate Change
This year is forecast to be one of the warmest on record, with many countries, including the UK, seeing temperature records broken, rivers drying up and the human cost of climate change increasing. The Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) aims, in line with the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate change, to promote a human rights-based approach to climate action. This requires that States take ambitious adaptation and mitigation measures that are inclusive and respectful of communities affected by climate change.
Bachelet’s successor must continue to promote a human rights-based approach to climate action. For example, in drought-stricken areas of the Horn of Africa, conflict over scarce resources has increased. In addition, as sea levels continue to rise, coastal areas of many countries, including the UK, are likely to be significantly affected, leaving many without a home. Wildfires which have recently raged across California, Portugal, Italy, Spain and Greece, among other countries, have destroyed thousands of homes and infrastructure, such as telecommunications and health facilities. There are also many health-related risks associated with climate change; these will particularly affect the elderly and vulnerable.
At a time when the human cost of climate change is growing dramatically, the UN human rights chief must keep focus on this area and should work with member states on a clear plan of action, especially with COP27 imminent.
China’s Human Rights Violations in Xinjiang
The Chinese government has continued to implement far-reaching policies that severely restrict the freedoms of Muslims in Xinjiang. These violations have been carried out in a widespread and systematic manner to the extent that they have become an inexorable aspect of daily life for millions of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. The government has prevented millions of Xinjiang residents from communicating freely.
Michelle Bachelet had mentioned, prior to departing for China, that her office was updating its assessment of the situation in Xinjiang, and this would be shared with the Chinese government for factual comments before publication. She did not say when the report would be released for public scrutiny. It is unlikely, as things stand, that the OHCHR report coordinated by Bachelet on the Uyghur region (Xinjiang), with recommendations to the Chinese government, will be presented to the Council before the end of her term in August; her successor must make it a priority to present the recommendations coming out of the report to the Human Rights Council as soon as is possible, so that Member States of the council can discuss the recommendations and develop an action plan to ensure that this particular human rights crisis does not escalate any further.
The UK is one of many countries that is anxiously waiting for the findings of Bachelet’s report to be disseminated and has repeatedly called on Bachelet and her office to publish the report soon. In the meantime, the UK will continue to act with our international partners to increase the pressure on China immediately to cease its appalling human rights violations in Xinjiang, and release those unjustly detained.
Addressing the Alleged War Crimes in Russian-Controlled Areas of Ukraine
Human Rights Watch has documented several cases of Russian military forces committing laws-of-war violations against civilians in occupied areas of the Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Sumy and Kyiv regions of Ukraine.
The Human Rights Council in May 2022 closed its thirty-fourth special session after adopting a resolution on the deteriorating human rights situation in Ukraine stemming from the Russian aggression, in which the Council reiterated its demand for an immediate cessation of military hostilities against Ukraine and requested the Independent International Commission of Inquiry to conduct an inquiry to address the events in the areas of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy regions in late February and March 2022.
Since the resolution was adopted, the war in Ukraine has escalated, leaving many displaced and fearing for their lives. The chances of an imminent ceasefire or a peace agreement seem small. Belligerent armed forces that have effective control of an area are subject to the international law of occupation. The laws of war prohibit willful killing, rape and other sexual violence, torture, and inhumane treatment of captured combatants and civilians in custody. Anyone who orders or deliberately commits such acts, or aids and abets them, is responsible for war crimes. There are increasing accusations that Russia has committed crimes against humanity in Ukraine. It is therefore vitally important that the Human Rights Council continues to work for the protection of the rights of Ukrainians.
Phil Lynch, director of International Service for Human Rights has said, “We consider that the role of the High Commissioner is to be a human rights champion. It’s to be the world’s leading human rights advocate and defender, as distinct from the role of a diplomat or political envoy.”
Whoever takes on the role after Bachelet officially departs will certainly have their hands full and, as well as influencing them, the UK should continue its own mission to be a global human rights advocate at a time when climate change, conflict and general insecurity threaten to pull apart decades of work in this area.
We should remind the UK that their position on the UN Human Rights Council is significant and that they have the power to shape how the Council and the new UN Human Rights chief address current and future human rights challenges. You can act today by writing to the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office and Parliament’s International Development Select Committee to lobby them to ensure that the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should continue to “leave no one behind” as we strive for equality around the world and a peaceful resolution to the crises in several countries, including Ukraine and Afghanistan. Bachelet’s replacement has a duty to continue to listen to the concerns of the members of the UN Human Rights Council and advocate for greater respect of human rights.
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