Veteran diplomat Mr. Sergio Vieira de Mello has been named the new U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Mr. Vieira de Mello takes the job as questions rise about the wisdom of the commitment to human rights. The main causes of this “new thinking” are the war against terrorism and economic difficulties that encourage governments to take “shortcuts” as they try to develop. Mr. Vieira de Mello must confront these challenges directly and make clear that there can be no compromises in the fight to protect human rights.
Mr. Vieira de Mello is a Brazilian-born diplomat who has worked for the United Nations since 1969. In his most recent assignment, he oversaw East Timor’s birth as an independent nation. He takes over from former Irish President Mary Robinson, only the second officeholder, who declined to run for a second term. Ms. Robinson was reportedly willing to stay on, but she had less than enthusiastic support from major powers that have been stung by her criticism of their human rights practices. Russia had complained about her treatment of Chechens; the United States was equally disconcerted by her comments about how Washington was fighting the war against terrorism.
Mr. Vieira de Mello is a pragmatist. He is expected to take a lower profile than did his predecessor, but that is understandable: Firmness and unflagging dedication to the cause, and the results that he achieves, will be the standards by which he is judged — not headlines. Still, he has promised not to shy away from a fight if it needs to be fought.
Mr. Vieira de Mello must remember that he is the symbol of the international commitment to protect human rights. He must hold all governments to the same standards, and resist the temptation to lower them to adapt to circumstances. As we are now learning, that temptation is ever-present.
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