Defending the independent voice of the High Commissioner and his Office


The High Commissioner and his Office need to remain independent and accountable. This will ensure that the High Commissioner can continue to operate efficiently and impartially, and in all of our interests, write the Ambassadors of Costa Rica and Ireland to the UN in Geneva.

H.E. Patricia O'Brien is the Irish Ambassador to the UN in Geneva and H.E. Elayne Whyte Gómez is the Costa Rican Ambassador to the UN in Geneva

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and his Office have a crucial but unenviable role. Their task and challenge, in shorthand, is to work for “all human rights for all”. The simplicity of that statement is in sharp contrast to the reality of what it involves.

There are serious human rights challenges in all regions of the world, all deserving of attention and requiring that combination of expertise, focus and dedication which the High Commissioner and his team possess. The range of actions required on any particular issue can stretch from research, to assessments of human rights situations, investigation of alleged violations and processing of complaints, technical cooperation and assistance, education and advocacy and, where required, public comment or criticism.

This reflects the fact that the High Commissioner has a dual role – on the one hand to support the actions of States in meeting their human rights obligations, on the other, his role might imply to challenge them. That is, not only to serve as a spur to our conscience, but also as our expert adviser, guide and coach.  He simply cannot fulfil this mandate without independence - for him or her and his Office which is the means by which he exerts his mandate.

This is the reason why, when created, the world decided that he works under the direction of the UN Secretary General, for this condition provides the appropriate accountability structure for the High Commissioner and, through him, his Office. Any suggestion that States should interject themselves into this relationship – as can be found in the report of the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), which is before the 28th session of the Human Rights Council – is inappropriate and, in our view, dangerous.

As small, neutral states, Ireland and Costa Rica are particularly conscious of the risks of any dilution of the independence of the High Commissioner and his Office.  Their strength and capacity lies in their independence, removed from political choices of and inter-State relations or strains.  To put that another way - an Office that answers to the UN Secretary General is the best promise of an Office which can treat all States equally and fairly, without political considerations creeping into the mix.

The JIU report suggests that the High Commissioner and his Office can be divided, one holding independence and the other not. This is not only legally incorrect, but also practically impossible. There is a good reason for the fact that no example exists of a UN agency or organisation having an independent head but without a similarly independent staff – it is unworkable. Like any manager, the High Commissioner needs to have the power to direct his staff; and the latter needs a clear understanding of to whom they report and are accountable to.

It is true that all States have an interest in seeing an efficient and impartial OHCHR. The best way to achieve this aspiration is by adequately fund it with resources from the UN regular budget, made up of all of our assessed contributions. But there is simply no reality in a suggestion that creating an oversight structure by States would make for greater efficiency and impact.   

These and many other recommendations in the JIU report are not just technical issues. The report’s approach to promote government supervision of the Office is not in contradiction with the ideal that created such institution, but its recommendations would imply real and immediate negative effects if – for instance, acceptance of the suggestion of aligning the OHCHR Strategic Framework and Organizational Management Plan would not only contravene the independence of the Office but would prevent States from receiving technical assistance from OHCHR without a prior mandate from the Human Rights Council (HRC) or UN General Assembly (UNGA). Preventing States from voluntarily seeking and receiving technical assistance in this way – and tying up further precious time at the HRC and UNGA – is in nobody’s interest.

In an international environment which seems to be increasingly conflictive and marked by  brutality and violations of human rights, particularly intra-state, there is a pressing need to ensure that the time and resources of OHCHR – and the Human Rights Council – are spent on those real challenges, rather than on creating new and heavy review processes for oversight and supervision on an institution created to promote and protect all human right.

The best way to support and enhance the capacity of the High Commissioner and his Office is to fully respect their independence and ensure that they are adequately resourced. We support an increased regular budget allocation to the Office. We also make voluntary and unearmarked contributions to the Office. Costa Rica’s contribution in 2013 was 100% unearmarked; Ireland’s was 93% unearmarked- with the remaining 7% requested as earmarked funding by the Office because, for technical reasons common to the whole UN Secretariat, contributions to Trust Funds (such as the Trust Fund for LDCs and SIDS to which we contributed) have to be earmarked. This is a practical way to support the Office, without in any way supervising it and we encourage all States to similarly make unearmarked contributions, at a level within their means.

Rather than undermine the independence of the High Commissioner and his Office through an unnecessary governance review, we trust the High Commissioner and his clearly established independent mandate. And he needs an Office which remains independent and accountable to him, to allow him to continue to operate, in all of our interests, without political interference from States. 



  • Europe
  • Latin America and Caribbean
  • United Nations
  • Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
  • Costa Rica
  • Ireland