The complicated process of finding a successor to Michelle Bachelet

The job is one of the most exposed in the UN, but that has not stopped more than fifty people from coming forward—some of whom have even phoned Bachelet directly to express their interest.

The renewed struggle between great power politics and human rights is the backdrop before which the new UN High Commissioner for human rights will be chosen. The process is mobilizing missions in Geneva, delegations in New York, and civil society to try to influence UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ decision on who should succeed Michelle Bachelet.

The job is one of the most exposed in the UN, but that has not stopped more than fifty people from coming forward—some of whom have even phoned Bachelet directly to express their interest. She, however, will have no influence on the decision—at least, not officially. She left Geneva this morning.

The process has been widely attacked for its mismanagement and delay, especially considering Bachelet’s hurried departure. Cynics might suggest this has been a deliberate attempt to manufacture a sense of urgency and present the General Assembly with a fait accompli. Either way, the process is now in its final stages: A shortlist has been established, and the five candidates are now being interviewed by a committee set up by Guterres. Its members will evaluate the applicants’ views and position on fundamental rights but also dwell on their background and experience.

The names of the remaining favorites will be submitted to the UN chief, who will then make his choice; a decision heavily weighted by political considerations. With a crisis between Russia and NATO, another between China and the US, and in a climate of deep international mistrust, diplomats here and in New York readily admit that this will not be an easy puzzle to put together.


Once chosen, Guterres’ candidate will have to be approved by the UN General assembly. The hope is to find among the shortlist a candidate who does not need to be confirmed by a vote but by broad acclamation—as was the case for Bachelet and all recent nominees for the position. A vote would be perceived as a sign that the new High Commissioner might begin his or her tenure with authority and credibility questioned. It will thus be interesting to see whether, in the current climate of tensions and a few days after the long-awaited release of a scathing OHCHR report on China, a UN High Commissioner for human rights can indeed be confirmed by consensus.

In Geneva, informed diplomatic sources tell The G|O that Latin American governments are pressuring Guterres to appoint another candidate from their region. Bachelet, they argue, would have had the right to another four years had she not resigned, and they see no reason not to reappoint a Latin American candidate.


Sources tell us that this explains the presence on the shortlist of the Argentinian ambassador to the UN in Geneva. As president of the Human Rights Council, Federico Villegas might be acceptable to Chinese, Russians, Americans, and Europeans alike for the way he has conducted debates in recent months. However, missions here have been discreetly told he is not Guterres’ favorite candidate. In this context, while he enjoys the support of several governments, OHCHR watchers tell us that an intense lobbying effort on his behalf would have to be mounted for Villegas to have a chance.

If the loose principle of rotation were to be respected, it would be Eastern Europe’s turn, but in view of the crisis between Ukraine and Russia, the region was unable to reach an agreement around a common candidate.

If the process so far has been largely political, NGOs for their part still bemoan the lack of transparency in the nominating process and the absence of any sustained and meaningful engagement from Antonio Guterres towards civil society.

“It’s essential that Guterres consult with the human rights community as he searches for a new High Commissioner,” said Human Rights Watch. “The High Commissioner is not a diplomat, but the world’s chief human rights advocate. Speaking out publicly about abuses around the world needs to take precedence over friendly dialogue with governments. Courage is needed not just by the high commissioner in the future, but [by] the secretary-general today,” they claim. Both HRW and Amnesty International claim no consultations have been held with civil society.

The opening session of the Human Rights Council, on September 12, will begin before a new High Commissioner is installed at the Palais Wilson. Bachelet’s deputy, Jordan diplomat Nada Al Nashif, will gavel the session as acting Commissioner. Antonio Guterres got himself some time. But the pressure remains.