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international civil servants in Geneva

Nada Al-Nashif, the new Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. ©OHCHR
Interview: Deputy High Commissioner Ms. Nada Al-Nashif
27 May 2020

UN Today had the chance to interview the new Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nada Al-Nashif, who joined OHCHR on 10 February 2020. In order to get to know the DHC better, UN Today asked the DHC a number of questions – both professional and personal.

You just recently started, what was your motivation behind serving in OHCHR? And how have you been coping with a new job as DHC but also the Covid-19 situation?

This is indeed my fourth UN entity to serve in after UNDP, ILO and UNESCO! My motivation in applying to OHCHR was two-fold: first, in response to the fierce pushback on rights and freedoms that we have witnessed across the world in the last few years. I believe this requires a stronger UN as the custodian of universal values and norms and a stronger OHCHR at the heart of the UN to keep us true to our human rights principles. Second, this post includes a strong management dimension for which I believe my skills and experience constitute a solid match. I am deeply privileged to now have the chance at OHCHR to make a direct contribution to both of the above.

And it’s been a whirlwind! The start-up at OHCHR was hectic in preparation for the March session of the Human Rights Council – and then everything got hijacked by COVID-19. The pace has been incredibly charged, and it was positively bizarre after all the activity of my first month on the job to see Geneva and our Office so eerily quiet and isolated. The highlight was the move (despite COVID-19!) into my new apartment last month – this really enabled me to settle down, establish a healthy routine and feel “at home” in Geneva.

How are you finding Geneva and OHCHR? What are your initial impressions?

I am enjoying both very much. I have not lived in Geneva before and I am loving the compact scale, beautiful nature and the easy accessibility of the city. The Human Rights mandate is even more awe-inspiring that I thought. I see now, first-hand, the heavy toll this work takes on our minds and hearts – with the constant exposure to the many facets of inequality, deprivation and violations that we deal with. That’s why I have a lot of admiration for our staff, working here in Geneva and all over in our OHCHR offices/operations across the globe.

In the circumstances, what are some of the greatest human rights challenges in trying to combat the virus in your view?

While it is true that the Corona Virus does not discriminate, I think we have seen major challenges in the response and recovery phase as the pandemic exposes and exacerbates existing, deep-rooted inequalities. We are already witnessing the pandemic’s devastating impact especially on the poorest countries with huge losses of jobs and livelihoods that will affect socio-economic growth for years to come. The challenges are particularly tough for certain parts of our societies. We have spoken out to highlight concerns regarding women, racial and ethnic minorities, and migrants, for example. Obviously, the stigmatization, discrimination and racist attacks against particular groups have also been a real threat to our social fabric. Threats to the principles of rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights have arisen from the adoption of emergency measures in a number of countries.

What is the greatest challenge for OHCHR and what is its added-value?

At this critical time, OHCHR’s biggest challenge is to ensure that we can truly leverage our moral authority, our voice and our technical capacity in an integrated way – to influence states and all partners towards ensuring that the human rights impacts of COVID-19 are effectively addressed now and throughout the recovery. Our independence is a critical asset – OHCHR has taken a stronger line where we identified particularly egregious state behaviour, leveraging the voice of the High Commissioner publicly on specific advocacy messages in parallel with direct outreach to governments urging action to mitigate the consequences of certain measures to control the pandemic.

Nada Al-Nashif, the new Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. ©OHCHR
Nada Al-Nashif, the new Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. ©OHCHR

How does OHCHR work with other UN agencies and other stakeholders in tackling this pandemic?

Speaking and Acting as One UN on these issues is critical. Joint advocacy with Resident Coordinators and UN Country Teams – constructive, anchored in human rights – is key. It is important to utilize entry points that RCs, WHO representatives and others have with government representatives and line ministries to send clear and consistent human rights messages. Our partner NGOs and National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) are critical to our efforts on the ground to expand our collective reach and ensure access to the most marginalised and needy communities.

Looking ahead, what are the longer-term human rights concerns as a result of the pandemic?

We will continue to call for socio-economic policy-making that invests in people’s wellbeing and the enhanced enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. COVID-19 is exposing the dramatic results of decades of global under-spending in health, water and sanitation, housing, social protection and of policies eroding labour rights and decent work. We are concerned that states may be tempted to adopt austerity measures that erode social protection systems and other essential services to achieve fiscal balance. A deterioration in the enjoyment of these rights could lead to violence, social unrest and conflict. And we are of course concerned that where there are opportunistic restrictions on public freedoms, privacy and free speech, many of these could be very difficult to unravel – constituting more fundamental breaches of human rights in the longer term.

Are there any positive developments in addressing the human rights challenges due to the pandemic that you can share with us?

I think an important positive development has been the rallying of the UN system around the integration of human rights in COVID-19 response and recovery. Although this has always been a common endeavour, we now have the opportunity and the political will for joint implementation. Another set of positive developments has been the excellent examples of good practices that States have demonstrated in responding to the crisis – where the human rights approach has been part of the solution, facilitating win-win outcomes.

In the current situation, what would you say to our staff? How do you intend to address existing concerns of OHCHR staff on career prospects and diversity?

I am encouraged by the very supportive and engaged responses of staff during this pandemic. I have seen so many colleagues, despite serious constraints and personal/professional worries, remain positive, kind to each other and dedicated to the people we serve- truly inspirational! The looming budget crisis has caused a lot of uncertainty for our operational capacity and in terms of our temporary/shorter-term staff. I am committed to working, under the strong leadership of the High Commissioner, with my senior management colleagues, towards the implementation of more robust talent and career management policies that better reflect the full range of our diversity.

Tell us something about yourself that others may be surprised to know about you? What is your favourite movie/book? What type of music do you listen to? Who is your favourite singer?

I have a very broad repertoire of favourite films, it’s incredibly hard to pick just one. I love going to the cinema though – and I can say that I was very moved by the last film I saw here in Geneva just before lockdown, “Parasite”. Similarly with books, I’m an avid reader and keep a wide selection at hand – notably really good historical novels. A very formative one for me was Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”. The music I enjoy at any given time is hugely influenced by the company, moods and locations. Some constants who feature across all my listening patterns and physical locations include the timeless Fairouz and Abdelhalim Hafez at one end of the cultural spectrum with ABBA and Phil Collins at the other- variety the spice of life!

* Brad Smith and Niraj Dawadi are Human Rights Officers at OHCHR.
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