Human Rights Reimagined
For the first time since 2001, a majority of the world’s population lives under non-democratic, rights-violating governments. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights plays a crucial role in times like these, and the next one should be a young, Black, gay wheelchair user.
NEW YORK – When the United Nations was built from the rubble of World War II, it would have been inconceivable for someone like me – a young, Black, gay wheelchair user – to be considered for a top job in the organization. So, it is a stunning testament to the distance humanity has come since 1945 that I will be among the candidates the UN will consider to succeed Michelle Bachelet when she leaves her post next month as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
If selected, I would be the highest-ranking international civil servant with a disability since the UN was founded. This would be a historic victory for the 1.3 billion disabled people who, according to the UN, comprise the world’s largest minority group.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, signed in 2007, has helped to advance inclusion across the board. But to see someone in a wheelchair in a position of power is still highly unusual. In many parts of the world today, the face of ostracization is still that of a brown-skinned disabled kid.
I could easily have been that kid. But you could say my experience as a human-rights advocate began at the age of six, when – with tears streaming down my face – I told my mother, “I want to go to school.”
Life for a kid in a wheelchair in Namibia, where I spent the first nine years of my life, is often extremely limited – as it is in much of the developing world. According to the UN, 90-98% of kids with disabilities in the Global South do not have the opportunity to go to school at all.
At the time, indeed, I was beating the odds just to be alive. As a two-year-old, I was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, a deadly degenerative disease that attacks the nervous system. Doctors told my mother I would most likely not live to see my fifth birthday. I am now 31.
WINTER SALE: Save 40% on all new Digital or Digital Plus subscriptions
Subscribe now to gain greater access to Project Syndicate – including every commentary and our entire On Point suite of subscriber-exclusive content – starting at just $49.99.
My mother, who wiped the tears from my eyes, was determined. She found a school willing to take me. On my first day, I was placed at the very back of the classroom. It was clear little was expected of me. I stunned the teacher by writing my own name – something most of the other kids could not do. A smile spread across her face. She saw that I could learn just like, or maybe sometimes faster, than the others.
That experience taught me to reach high, no matter the obstacles in my path. My candidacy to succeed Bachelet seeks to push the boundaries of possibility, not just for people with disabilities but for anyone who has ever felt devalued, underestimated, and marginalized.
If selected, I would be the youngest leader at the main leadership level. The UN often emphasizes the importance of engaging young people, given our stake in the future. And yet we are an unrepresented demographic at the institution. Selecting a young leader for this position would give fresh impetus and authority to the work of the UN High Commissioner.
Attainment of human rights for all very often feels like an impossible pursuit, especially now, when everything feels impossible. But, as Nelson Mandela pointed out, it always seems impossible until it is done.
I had to remind myself of these words some time back, when I was still at Amnesty International and had the impossible mandate of bringing together two groups known to be distrustful of each other: business leaders and human-rights defenders. I persuaded them to listen to each other as part of a campaign to hold extractive industries to account for human-rights violations in Africa.
At a time when the world is increasingly fractured and it feels as though we have simply stopped listening to one another, I think the office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is uniquely qualified to address the most pressing challenges of our day. For the first time since 2001, a majority of the world’s population lives under non-democratic, rights-violating governments. We face heightened nationalism, an emerging economic crisis, and a global pandemic – a health crisis that too many governments have met by claiming emergency powers and adopting restrictions that often violate rights. And of course, the conflicts in Ukraine, the Sahel, Myanmar, and a host of other places create their own significant rights concerns.
The UN High Commissioner plays a crucial role in times like these, serving as a beacon for the principles of human rights and championing those who bravely speak out when they see violations around the world. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said, human rights underpin “the entire UN system. [They] are essential to addressing the broad causes and impacts of all complex crises, and to building sustainable, safe, and peaceful societies.”
Should the Secretary-General select me for this role, my job will be to identify and expose rights violations tirelessly, no matter what powerful interests stand in the way, and to engage with civil-society advocates to make the UN’s work more participatory and more relevant to driving change.
I am, admittedly, an outside-the-box candidate for this post – an impossible choice, some might say. But I believe, in these times especially, that fresh thinking, new energy, and an ability to see how to overcome seemingly impossible barriers is exactly what the world needs.