Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, sprang a surprise on March 19, when she announced that she would not seek a second term when her current four-year period of office ends next September. Blaming “constraints within the UN system”, the outspoken former Irish president said she could do more for human rights outside the commission than within it. Two days later, Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, who appointed Mrs Robinson as high commissioner in 1997, declared his intention to seek a second five-year term, saying he would be deeply honoured to serve. It came as no surprise that Mrs Robinson’s announcement was deeply regretted by human rights organisations and activists but not by governments, while Annan’s was welcomed by the US and the European Union.
In a personal statement to the annual session of the commission, Mrs Robinson said she would “continue to work whole-heartedly for human rights in the way that I know best — as an advocate. I believe that I can at this stage achieve more outside the constraints that a multilateral organisation inevitably imposes.”
Her office — with a regular budget of less than $22 million a year, or 2 percent of the UN budget — is clearly under-resourced, although a direct appeal by her raised an additional $44 million in voluntary contributions from governments last year. But such contributions are an unsatisfactory way of financing a body expected to speak out against violations by governments, and are, in any case, insufficient to fund a world organisation. “If human rights are so important, they must be funded out of the core budget”, Robinson said. Proposals by the UN to increase the commission’s budget will however remain a distant objective as long as Annan is secretary-general, since his popularity with the Americans derives partly from his campaign to cut costs.
Funding problems apart – which dominate virtually all discussion of UN projects – Robinson was also hampered by the tradition and expectation that she should not criticise influential members of the commisssion, and of the UN security council. To her credit, she refused to be totally bound by this, hence her unpopularity among Western governments.
Last year, for example, the commission criticised a member of the security council for the first time, when it took Russia to task; it also criticised China for its suppression of the Tibetans and the Falun Gong cult. Although the commission did not raise the question of Chinese Muslims, Mrs Robinson personally did, criticising Beijing’s repression in Turkestan (officially China’s Xinjiang province). She was also unrestrained in censuring the Algerian army’s massacre of civilians in 1997.
But even an outspoken high commissioner like Mrs Robinson can only achieve so much under a system that is fundamentally unsound. However, her contribution must be recognised as valuable precisely because her outspokenness serves to expose how unsatisfactory the system is. The fact that the high commissioner has no control over the 53-member commission underscores her contribution.
Human rights organisations have paid tribute to her work since learning of her decision to quit. Amnesty International, for instance, issued a statement on March 19 praising her contribution. “Mary Robinson is a courageous and committed campaigner for human rights who recognises that a quiet word is not always the best way to get results. She is not someone who shied away from criticising human rights abuses just because they occurred in countries that were politically and economically powerful.”
But while human rights organisations and some media representatives praised her, no government spokesman even commented on her decision, let alone praised her contribution, by the time of writing. By contrast, when Kofi Annan announced his decision to seek a second term, government officials and former officials, particularly from the west, were eloquent about the achievements of his first term as secretary-general. Western newspapers even praised his contribution to human-rights, although human-rights organisations, which had paid tribute to Mrs Robinson, were conspicuous for their silence rather than for their comment.
Perhaps the most damning praise for Annan came from the Americans. He will go down in the history of the UN as the first secretary-general to be praised by Republican representatives in Congress who have always campaigned for a US boycott of the world body. He is already remembered as the first UN chief to appeal publicly for Israel to be treated more cordially by members of the UN general assembly, at a time when Israel was committing war crimes in Palestine, and was refusing to implement UN resolutions. And his cooperation with the US and Britain over Iraq was underlined when Clinton’s UN representative praised him “as one of the greatest secretary-generals” the UN has had.