Accessibility links

UN: Citing Job's Restraints, Rights Commissioner To Leave Post

  • Robert McMahon

Yesterday's (19 March) surprise announcement from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson that she will leave her post later this year draws attention to the pressures involved in running the agency. Although widely respected for raising the stature of rights commissioner, Robinson said she has received too little support from UN member states in carrying out her mandate. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 20 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Mary Robinson chose the first session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to disclose she would be stepping down as rights commissioner in September.

Robinson's decision not to seek a second term was announced after her opening statement yesterday to the commission, in which she warned of a lack of political will by UN member states in implementing international human rights instruments.

One sign of this, she said, is the amount of money that member states provide for the office of high commissioner. Robinson said her staff's workload has been steadily increasing while her budget -- about $20 million -- has remained low. She said she believed she could achieve more working outside of the restraints imposed by a multilateral organization.

She later told reporters there is a clear gap between words and action at the United Nations on the question of human rights.

"I believe it is one of the major disconnects between the eloquence and fine language used by so many representatives of governments when speaking about human rights and the fact that the core budget allocates less than 2 percent to human rights work."

Human rights activists have credited Robinson for outspokenness about rights abuses, regardless of the country. For example, her report to last year's Human Rights Commission on abuses in Chechnya contributed to the passing of a resolution calling on Russia to investigate allegations its armed forces had committed violations against Chechen civilians.

It was the first time one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council had been scrutinized in this way before the commission, and certainly earned Robinson no support from the Russian government.

Robinson said in a report last week that Russia's response to the resolution in the past year has been insufficient. The commission is expected to hear updated reports on Chechnya during its current six-week session, including a proposal by prominent human rights groups to appoint an international commission of inquiry.

The Russian human rights group Memorial this week reported that bodies of dozens of Chechen civilians have been buried by Russian forces near a military base outside of Grozny, after apparent executions. One Western news agency (AP) reports that nearly 50 bodies have been found so far.

Russian officials have consistently denied committing rights abuses and often refer to their war in Chechnya as an action against terrorists.

But Robinson said yesterday she will continue to push for a proper investigation by Russian authorities into the mounting allegations of rights violations.

"There has not been that broad credible response as yet that the seriousness of the allegations warrants, so I will continue to press for that."

Human rights activists who have worked with Robinson since she became high commissioner in 1997 say the challenges and frustrations in the job are enormous. Robinson recently came under some criticism in the West for agreeing to conform to the Islamic women's dress code and wear a veil during a recent conference in Tehran. Bahais and a Jewish group were excluded from the same conference by Iran.

Robinson also faces pressure from many sides in her role as chairwoman of the preparatory process for the world conference on racism to be held in South Africa in August.

Cathy Fitzpatrick is the director of the New York-based International League of Human Rights, a non-governmental organization that closely follows UN rights matters. She tells RFE/RL that it has been a source of frustration with Robinson that her job -- essentially upholding the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a number of major treaties -- has put her at odds with so many countries.

"She once said to me: 'I have 180 bosses and most of them don't wish me well.' And that says it all to me."

Fitzpatrick says Robinson may be seen over time as one of the most outspoken people to hold the job.

Joanna Weschler, the UN representative for Human Rights Watch, says her organization will be saddened to see Robinson step down. But she says UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has made human rights a priority and she is hopeful his next appointment to the post will have Robinson's stature.

Annan issued a statement yesterday saying he regretted Robinson's decision not to seek a new term. UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva quoted Annan as saying Robinson has been courageous in speaking out for the victims of human rights abuses.

"She rightly has placed the emphasis on understanding human rights in their broadest sense -- economic and social as well as civil and political. In doing so, she has made a critical contribution to giving human rights a central role in the United Nations system."

Robinson says she plans to continue working as a human rights advocate after her term ends. In her remaining months in office, human rights activists say they hope Robinson may have the freedom to become even more outspoken on rights abuses.