- The Washington Times - Monday, July 15, 2002

GENEVA The field is still wide open and a mystery: Who will Secretary-General Kofi Annan appoint to head the United Nation's human rights agency, considered one of the most sensitive jobs in global diplomacy?
Mr. Annan is expected to announce his choice sometime in the next month, said Western and developing-country ambassadors, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who steps down in September, has dramatically raised the profile of the office in her five-year tenure. But in the process, she has also irritated the United States on a number of occasions, as well as other powers great and small.
"She gave stature and respect to the job," said one ambassador.
Mrs. Robinson's approach to a host of volatile political issues, from Russian abuses in Chechnya to Washington's handling of prisoners in the U.S.-led campaign against al Qaeda, the death penalty and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in the occupied territories, put her on a collision course with several key capitals.
The heightened role of human rights issues following the end of the Cold War and the globalization of the world economy have also dramatically elevated the importance of the high commissioner's post.
Some governments with poor human rights records China and Cuba, among others conduct diplomatic offensives each year at the head-of-state level to block resolutions critical of their record by the high commissioner's 53-member commission.
Moreover, in the last decade, China and Indonesia (during the Suharto regime) used the award of lucrative commercial contracts to buy votes on the commission.
Many developing countries say the United States and other Western nations apply a double standard when it comes to human rights. They say that rich democracies try to point the finger at the policies of poor, weak and developing countries but are often silent when it comes to major breaches by rich countries.
Western countries, they add, are also generally silent when it comes to problems in countries where they have extensive strategic or commercial interests, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Algeria and Israel.
The long list of high-caliber candidates seeking to succeed Mrs. Robinson, the former president of Ireland, also reflects the importance of the U.N. rights commission.
According to senior diplomats close to the shadow diplomatic campaign, the current field of applicants includes Han Seung-Soo, former foreign minister of South Korea; Surin Pitsuwan, former foreign minister of Thailand; Bronislaw Geremek, former foreign minister of Poland, and Shambhu Ram Simkhada, the ambassador of Nepal to the U.N. organizations in Geneva.
Another de facto and popular candidate waiting in the wings is Sergio Vieira de Mello, a top Brazilian U.N. official who in the last few years was the interim U.N. administrator of East Timor and has also led major U.N. missions in other hot spots such as Kosovo.
Well-placed sources say that Mr. Surin, a Harvard-trained political scientist who was Bangkok's foreign minister from 1992 until 2001, has the broadest support.
However, the same sources say that Mr. Annan's office is being heavily lobbied by women's human-right's groups, which insist he choose a woman to take over from Mrs. Robinson. Although the selection rests with Mr. Annan alone, geographical rotations and distribution are also taken into account in top U.N. appointments, as is gender.
On the geographical front, Asian nations sent a letter to Mr. Annan in May stressing that it is Asia's turn to head the human-rights post, senior diplomats said.
The views of the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China are also taken into account by Mr. Annan, U.N. diplomats said. Senior diplomats familiar with the process reckon that the views of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will also weigh in the selection.
The name of former Philippine President Corazon Aquino has been suggested as an outside choice, as have the names of a number of other women from Asian countries with human rights credentials.
Alpha Omar Konare, former president of Mali, has also been mentioned in U.N. circles as a contender to head the U.N. rights commission.
According to some diplomats, Mr. Annan might even choose a complete outsider, as he did with the appointment of Ruud Lubbers, former prime minister of the Netherlands, as U.N. high commissioner for human rights.
Mrs. Robinson held the post for four years and was granted a one-year extension. Her predecessor, Jose Ayala-Lasso of Ecuador, held the job from 1994 until 1997 when he stepped down to become his country's foreign minister.
The fact that a Latin American has held the post so recently puts Mr. de Mello, who a number of Western ambassadors consider "perfect for the job," at somewhat of a disadvantage, in the opinion of U.N. handicappers.
Senior Asian sources say that China, a permanent member of the Security Council, is insisting that the appointment should go to an Asian.
Meanwhile, one ambassador said: "You need someone hands-on in the job. The pressure is tremendous."
Envoys from major Western and developing countries, speaking in private, said the job of high commissioner requires someone with good political connections.
"You need someone who can react to problems fast," one envoy said.

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