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Home / Books / Lectures - Speech: The United nations High Commissioner for Human Rights




The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is the official "with principal responsibility for United Nations human rights activities" and with the mandate "to coordinate the human rights promotion and protection activities throughout the United Nations system" (GA Res.48/141 of December 20, 1993). His staff is the secretariat of the United Nations Centre for Human Rights, with principal seat in Geneva, a liaison office at United Nations headquarters in New York, and several field offices.

The post was created in December 1993 by the General Assembly, following a recommendation in paragraph 18 of Part II of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted at the conclusion of the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights.

The terms of reference of his Office are defined in GA Res. 48/141, pursuant to which he functions within the framework of the Charter of the United Nations and other human rights instruments, subject to the respect of the principles of State sovereignty, territorial integrity and domestic jusridiction of States. His task is to help make human rights a reality in every corner of the world. To do so, he is mandated "to rationalize, adapt, strengthen and streamline the United Nations machinery in the field of human rights" (para. 4(i)), and is given a voice in the human rights activities of subsidiary organs such as the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and of specialized agencies such as the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the International Labour Office and the United Nations Children's Fund. His mandate does not duplicate or overlap with the those of already existing commissions, expert committees and special rapporteurs, but is aimed at enhancing their efficienty and effectiveness.

In order to carry out his task, ara. 4 of the Resolution also confers upon him a broad power of initiative. Para.4(f) calls upon him to play "an active role in removing the current obstacles and in meeting the challenges to the full realization of all human rights and in preventing the continuation of human rights violations throughout the world." Pursuant to para. 4(g), the High Commissioner shall engage "in a dialogue with all Governments in the implementation of his mandate with a view to securing respect for all human rights." In this context, he makes recommendations to the policy-making organs of the United Nations.

Guided by the recognition that all human rights -- civil, cultural, economic, political and social -- are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated, and by the awareness of the need to promote a balanced and sustainable development for all people, the High Commissioner should possess "the general knowledge and understanding of diverse cultures necessary for impartial, objective, non-selective and effective performance" of his duties (para. 2 (a) Res. 48/141).

The establishment of a post of human rights commissioner or ombudsman had been an old aspiration of human rights activists since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In spite of much discussion about it in the UN Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly, the idea of appointing a human rights commissioner could not materialize in a polarized world, where the cold war at times threatened to develop into a hot confrontation. The gradual reduction of mistrust and hostility between the superpowers, including the disappearance of such vestiges of the World War II as the artificial division of Germany, provided a favorable atmosphere for renewing the initiative to upgrade the United Nations human rights programme by creating a strong office which would be able to react effectively to gross human rights violations.

On February 14, 1994 the General Assembly (UN Doc. A/48/321) unanimously confirmed the nomination by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (UN Doc. A/48/859) of Ambassador José Ayala Lasso, who had been the Ecuadorian Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York and the Chairman of the General Assembly Working Group that adopted the compromise terms of reference for the High Commissioner's mandate. On April 5, 1994, Mr. Ayala Lasso took up his functions in Geneva as High Commissioner and head of the United Nations Centre for Human Rights (HCHR/CHR). He was appointed to a four-year term, subject to renewal for another term, at the rank of Under-Secretary-General.

In 1997 the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights/Centre for Human Rights (HCHR/CHR) had a secretariat of some 75 professionals (lawyers, economists and political scientists), and as many general service staff. Its annual budget of some 20 million US dollars is thoroughly inadequate for its vast responsibilities and remains considerably below the budgets of other UN agencies and even of non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International. A comparison with the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (staff of approximately 5,000, budget of $1,400 million) and with the United Nations Development Programme (staff of approximately 6,000, budget of close to $2,000 million), two highly reputable and successful UN agencies, is illustrative of the need to provide increased human and material resources to HCHR/CHR.

Following the establishment of his Office, it became necessary to decide how the mandate was to be put into effect: in which cases should he act, what issues should be focused upon, what aspects of the mandate should be implemented immediately, what programme of action should be devised? Foremost, it was indispensable to assert his moral and political authority, to open avenues for future work, and to confer upon his office, in general terms, the competence and broad capacity for initiative and reaction. With this purpose in mind, the High Commissioner identified the following priority areas:

1) Crisis management

The Office of the High Commissioner must have the capacity to respond effectively and in a timely fashion to emerging crises which may arise in the field of human rights. The first major crisis faced by the High Commissioner manifested itself in Rwanda in April 1994. Following a process of information gathering, the High Commissioner proposed to convene a Special Session of the Commission on Human Rights and the appointment of a Special Rapporteur for Rwanda. Previously, the High Commissioner had travelled personally to Rwanda and established contact with authorities of the Government and of the Rwandese Patriotic Front urging them to put an end to the violence and the massacres, to negotiate a cease-fire, to take measures to guarantee the distribution of humanitarian assistance, to liberate the hostages of the violence and to negotiate a political solution to the crisis.

Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 935/1994 of July 1, 1994, the Secretary-General established, on July 29, 1994, a Commission of Experts to study and report on the violations of humanitarian law and of general human rights occurring in Rwanda. The High Commisioner for Human Rights was mandated to assist and provide cooperation and coordination to the Special Rapporteur Mr. R. Degni-Ségui and to the Commission of Experts.

On 2 August 1994, the High Commissioner made a public appeal to finance the operation in Rwanda from extra budgetary sources. On 20-21 August, he made a second visit to Rwanda and followed it by an appeal to increase the operation. The High Commissioner has sent to Rwanda a mission of human rights officers or monitors to serve the investigation mandates of the Special Rapporteur and of the Commission of Experts, cooperate with other U.N. agencies responsible for creating favourable conditions for the return of refugees and displaced persons and implement programmes of technical cooperation to assist in reconstructing the basic infrastructure necessary for the respect of human rights and the promotion of tolerance. This is the first field operation ever organized from the offices of the United Nations in Geneva and will certainly have important repercussions in the organization of the human rights component included in peace-keeping or peace-building operations.

2) Prevention and "early warning"

One of the most important tasks of the United Nations' work in the field of human rights is undertaking global preventive action to forestall the occurrence of human rights violations. It is true that international and regional human rights mechanisms have established procedures for providing redress and compensation to victims, but the true vision and objective of human rights law is to create an environment where everyone can fully enjoy his human rights without unjustifiable interference. It is better to prevent human rights violations than to react later with peace-keeping missions and humanitarian assistance. Indeed, the world community expects from the United Nations greater effectiveness in early warning and early response.

The Rwanda experience, one initially characterized by major logistical problems, demonstrated the importance to have the means and the manpower to respond rapidly to emergency situations. The establishment of a list of human rights specialists and experts, observers and jurists who are available on short notice to carry out field missions and the provision to the HCHR/CHR of logistical equipment will make it possible to respond speedily and effectively to such emergency situations.

Mr. Ayala Lasso's Office is in touch with other United Nations departments, in particular with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, as well as with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and member Governments, with a view to making progress on the consideration of such a rapid response mechanism in the field of human rights.

With respect to prevention, Special rapporteurs and representatives, experts and working groups of the Commission, chairmen of treaty bodies, United Nations agencies and programmes, as well as intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations can inform the HCHR/CHR on situations requiring a preventive response.

One further step in the direction of prevention through "early warning" was the creation of a "human rights hotline" in May 1994, which should allow the HCHR/CHR to react more rapidly to emergency information relating to human rights violations (1). With the improvement of information technology and logistical backup, this hotline should prove useful in accelerating fact finding and providing viable solutions.

Human rights education is perhaps the most effective preventive strategy to forestall massive violations of human rights by contributing to the establishment of societies based on respect of human dignity. The General Assembly, in proclaiming the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education in December 1994, appealed to the international community to set in motion what UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali referred to as "a vast civic workshop on a global scale." The Programme of Action for the Decade is the fruit of cooperation between the Office of the High Commissioner, Member States, international organizations, treaty monitoring bodies and non-governmental organizations.

3) Assistance to States in Period of Transition

After the end of the cold war, the process of democratization has been initiated in many areas where previously existed authoritarian regimes. Frequently the States which are in this period of transistion require international assistance to succeeed in their efforts. The assistance provided by the HCHR/CHR encompasses advisory services in the building of national human rights infrastructures, preparation for democratic elections, drafting and/or reviewing of new democratic constitutions, human rights legislation and administrative rules and regulations, as well as organizing training courses on human rights standards, notably for persons engaged in the administration of justice.

Many countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America have requested and received the assistance of the HCHR/CHR in these matters.

4) Right to Development

Paragraph 4 (c) of GA Resolution 48/141 and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action place considerable emphasis on development as a human right and as a prerequisite for the enjoyment of human rights. The priority given to this right is reflected in the new structure of the Centre for Human Rights, which has set up a branch with overall responsibility for the coordination of initiatives and programmes in this field. Moreover, in order to make the objectives set forth in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights a practical reality, closer links are being established with international financial institutions, development agencies and national economic players.

5) Coordination and rationalization

As the United Nations official with principal responsibility for UN human rights activities, the High Commissioner has been mandated to coordinate, rationalize and streamline the United Nations machinery and activities in this field. He has begun by restructuring the Centre for Human Rights and increasing its visibility by opening field offices in various regions of the world. It is hoped that field offices of the HCHR/CHR will be able not only to provide advisory services and technical assistance to governments, but also to help implement and follow-up on concrete recommendations of UN bodies such as the Human Rights Committee. In countries where the HCHR/CHR does not have field offices, it is hoped that the resident representatives of UNDP will cooperate in making follow-up a routine activity.

A systematic interchange of information among the United Nations agencies regarding their activities on human rights has been agreed as the first step in a process of coordination which will be very complex and will require several years to be accomplished.


Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a constant and progressive evolution has been accomplished.

Although the United Nations Charter placed human rights among the top priorities of the Organization, political realities have in the past affected this evolution. Gradually, however, the concepts of sovereignty and of domestic jurisdiction have also evolved, and governments have come to accept that the international community has a legitimate interest in promoting the observance and respect of human rights in all countries. The creation of the Office of the High Commissioner, by consensus, was an expression of this evolution of the international conceptions which materialized in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. Thus, the High Commissioner represents the expression of the international will to grant human rights issues the importance and priority they deserve.

UN GA Res. 48/141 of December 20, 1993.

Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on his mission to Rwanda 11-12 May 1994 (UN Doc. E/CN.4/S-3/3).

Reports of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to the General Assembly, UN Docs. A/49/36, A/4O/36, A/51/36.

Reports of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Commission on Human Rights, UN Docs. E/CN.4/1995/98, E/CN.4/1996/103.

United Nations Centre for Human Rights, The High Commissioner for Human Rights, an Introduction, Notes of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, No. 1, HR/PUB/HCHR/96/1, 1996.

G. Mansuy, Le Haut Commissaire des Nations Unies pour les droits de l'homme et la garantie internationale des droits fondamentaux de l'homme (1970).

R. Clark, A United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1972).

J. Humphrey, Human Rights and the United Nations (1984).

N. Dumas, Enforcement of human rights standards: an international human rights court and other proposals, Hastings International and Comparative Law Review (1990) 585-608.

J. Ayala Lasso, Defining the Mandate, Harvard International Review, Winter 1994/95 (1995) 38-41, and 78.

E. Klein (ed.), The Institution of a Commissioner for Human Rights and Minorities and the Prevention of Human Rights Violations, Colloquium, Potsdam, Germany 14-15 December 1994 (1995).

J. Lord, The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: challenges and opportunities, Loyola of Los Angeles International and Comparative Law Journal, Vol. 17(2), (1995) 329-363.

M. Schmidt, What happened to the Spirit of Vienna. Follow-up to the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action and the Mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nordic Journal of International Law, Vol. 64, No.4 (1995).

Z. Kedzia, The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights", in: U. Beyerlin, M. Bothe, R. Hofmann, E.U. Petersmann (eds.) Recht zwischen Umbruch und Bewahrung. Festschrift für Rudolf Bernhardt (1995) 435-452.

C. Cerna, A Small Step Forward for Human Rights: The Creation of the Post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, The American University Journal of International Law and Policy, Vol. 10 (1995) 1265-1274.

Alfred-Maurice de Zayas


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