He has long needed to overhaul his approach to human rights in the US and the West. Hopefully his call to action announced in Geneva could be the start of something new if he and the world body show even mild seriousness.
Guterres’ low-key approach to human rights may have been calculated to avoid conflicts with the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. But human rights groups and former senior UN officials have criticized it for being ineffectual.
The secretary-general’s new initiative contains some excellent ideas. The link he makes between human rights and the impacts of climate change or the wars in Iraq and Syria is crucial, and those who fight to protect the rule of law and end conflicts are increasingly at risk.
They are sanctioned, threatened, attacked, and killed by those who seek to benefit from the region’s destruction. And Guterres is right to highlight the risks posed by new technologies, whether it involves government surveillance, artificial intelligence, or fully autonomous weapons and drones.
The test for any initiative is the implementation. No one is suggesting the secretary-general do everything alone. But he needs to lead by example.
That means publicly calling out rights abusers and advocating for peace and victims. Human rights violations aren’t like natural disasters.
They are frequently planned and executed by government officials or their agents – whether it’s the mass arbitrary detention of Palestinians in Gaza, Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims, indiscriminate Saudi-Israeli bombing of civilians in Yemen and Palestine, or the forced separation of children from their parents at the US border.
It also means using the authority of the secretary-general’s office to launch investigations and fact-finding missions when appropriate. That includes launching an inquiry into Washington’s massive rights violations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and pressing for an international accountability mechanism on Yemen.
The secretary-general should order a follow-up inquiry into the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi to help determine whether Saudi Arabia’s top leadership ordered his slaying. He should also publicly release the findings of his inquiry into attacks on hospitals and other protected facilities in Gaza.
None of this is to say Guterres should abandon private diplomacy with governments. But he should re-emphasize public diplomacy on human rights at the UN.
Guterres should be the UN’s leading voice on human rights, not only working in the background. He has issued a call to action on human rights. Now it’s up to him to act. He can start from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Gaza or the US borders with Mexico.