Time For A Game Changer: Fresh Leadership For Human Rights At The United Nations

Michael Sheldrick Contributor

Global Citizen Contributor Group

From Taiwan to Ukraine, geopolitical tensions have dominated 2022. Commitment to human rights of all kinds have seemingly been put on the back-burner. Yet, it is precisely in these moments when we need champions and leaders to stand up for human rights and ensure they remain firmly on the agenda. In short: fresh leadership is needed.

In the face of these setbacks, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has had a clear response. His call to action “Our Common Agenda recognizes that the trust of people in institutions is broken, and that the international community is at a crossroads between “breakdown” or “breakthrough” on so many issues – from climate action, to pandemic responsiveness and preparedness, to getting humanity back on track to end extreme poverty. The current global governance deficit is certainly widening.

Guterres has the opportunity to supercharge efforts to address this deficit when in the coming weeks he appoints the next UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In this, Guterres has a clear choice to make: he can keep the status quo, or break the mold, by electing someone who can infuse much needed energy and life to the UN world, bringing a legacy to his last term as Secretary General.

Previous appointees of this position have belonged to the political elite, part of a bubble of diplomats and politicians who, while well-versed in high-level diplomacy and processes, lacked the ability to effectively engage young people, communicate to the masses, or fire up grassroots-level actors working on the ground to defeat poverty. It is in this vein that Eddie Ndopu, someone who has himself faced and overcome barriers, has put himself forward as a candidate.

Eddie is well known for his work within the disability movement, having founded “A BILLION REASONS”, a social impact incubator which endeavors to tackle the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals through the lens of universal design and disability-based innovation. He is also one of the official UN Advocates for the Sustainable Development Goals, appointed by the UN Secretary-General, working at the intersection of sustainability, disability, race, LGBTQI+ and social justice. As he himself put it recently “I am, admittedly, an outside-the-box candidate for this post. Some might even say, an impossible choice. But I believe, in these times especially, fresh thinking, new energy, and an ability to see how to overcome seemingly impossible barriers is exactly what we need.”

Eminent individuals like former UN Deputy Secretary-General Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados, former UN Women Executive Director, Dr. Mlambo-Ngcuka and former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, have all endorsed Eddie’s bid. They all share the belief that our current world, the UN system, and its human rights machinery needs someone who can refocus the institution to illuminate the human rights dimensions of climate, poverty, and inequality, and can rise to the occasion with a bold “human-rights-first” response to the confluence of crises we currently face.

Defending human rights is not an abstract notion, nor is it separated from development and the elimination of poverty, as siloed institutions make us wrongly perceive. Poverty is itself a state of human rights violation and a state of injustice. Access to justice and upholding human rights are therefore essential parts of poverty elimination.

The world needs out-of-the-box, positive disruption for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, the position of High Commissioner needs to bring closer engagement with citizens, those to whom the position is devoted to protect. A young person like Eddie, who brings together the grass-roots level perspective of combatting poverty, alongside intersecting forms of discrimination would not just reinvigorate the position itself, but would also improve the standing of the UN in a time where we are facing a global governance deficit.

Eddie’s candidacy would bring much needed oxygen and a fresh new perspective and both to the global level of human rights implementation, and also to the Geneva-based machinery. There, every government on earth has agreed to stand up for peer-reviewed scrutiny: governments meet three times a year at the Human Rights Council, and the implementation of each one of the human rights conventions is closely monitored. A world where process for the sake of process reigns and the mere act of holding a meeting is considered a success, a world which feels very distant from the desperate cries of those suffering under the oppression of some of those very same governments. This boat needs to be rocked.

Of course, having a High Commissioner who is a wheelchair user would immediately reinvigorate disability and ableism discussions, and would push the implementation of the rights of Persons with Disabilities to new heights. Just last week “UN human rights experts… expressed concern about the situation of children with disabilities in Ukraine” as a result of the conflict there.”

However, reducing Eddie to this one dimension would be wrong. From the perspective of youth, to LGBTQI+ populations, to people having experienced poverty, to racial discrimination, the dimensions from which Eddie can speak from a position of experience would only strengthen his potential impact.

Just as important, the election of someone like Eddie would invigorate the work of the United Nations in supporting civic space and defending human rights defenders. Issues of accountability, participation of people, transparency, and consultation can be best defended and promoted by an actual activist who has experienced the lack thereof.

This is the moment for the Secretary General to be bold in his second and last mandate, to utilize platforms such as our festival to galvanize the voices of young people in favor of his agenda of change, and to take advantage of the opportunity of the selection of the new High Commissioner for Human Rights to bring transparency to the process, to ask all candidates to come with public pledges and to hold hearings open not only to governments, but to civil society and people in general.

By choosing Eddie, an unlikely candidate, and a representative himself of civil society, the Secretary General has the opportunity to get the SDGs back on track from a human rights perspective, to bring us closer to eliminating extreme poverty, and to infuse a much-needed fresh, new energy to the UN system, choosing the path of breakthrough, rather than breakdown.

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