Former UN Deputy/Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights, Director at the UN peacekeeping operation for the Former Yugoslavia, Director of the Africa I Division of the Department of Political Affairs, and head of the speech-writing service of the UN Secretary-General; Member, Global Vision Institute (GVI) Board of Advisors

(Interview originally conducted in February 2019)

Dr. Ramcharan,

Sincere thanks for sharing your thoughts with GVI. Let me begin by asking you the following:

1) You’ve had a rich and diverse career as a legal practitioner, scholar, university professor, NGO activist, and top international civil servant working for the United Nations in the area of human rights.          

Over such a long and distinguished career, what were some of your most challenging and rewarding experiences?


The most challenging was helping Theo van Boven to establish the UN human rights fact-finding system: the special procedures. This was historic. The most rewarding was our efforts to establish the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations. It provided indigenous peoples with their first forum at the United Nations. This was heart-warming. Alongside Dr. Van Boven, I was very much involved in the establishment of this forum.

2) As you know, GVI is committed to the promulgation of values awareness as a key motivating and energizing tool for those involved and committed to building a values-driven international system.

What are some of the core, underlying personal values that informed and sustained your efforts over such a distinguished career advocating for human rights? 


The most important was striving to live an honourable life. Honour was my lode-star. The values of the Universal Declaration were always inspirational. The dignity, decency, charm and faith of Lily Ramcharan were also of great help.

3) Following the news reports and the various sources of information you have access to, what changes have you witnessed regarding the type and intensity of conflicts occurring today and resulting violations of human rights, far too often targeting the civilian population?

In other words, what keeps you up at night worrying about the continued proliferation of human rights violations in the world today?


What worries me the most is the assault on the human rights system of the United Nations from various quarters. It is of the utmost importance that we uphold the universality of human rights. The UN Secretary-General has a historic role to play, together with the High Commissioner for Human Rights. If we lose the universality of UN human rights norms we will have lost our essence as a global community.

4) Based on your observations above, is the UN human rights apparatus ‘fit for purpose’ to confront current and emerging challenges?


It is very much fit for purpose. That is the story I tell in “The Advent of Universal Protection of Human Rights”. Unfortunately, one can see many efforts to water down the system. I have offered views on the Modernization of the UN Human Rights System in a book with this title that is just being published.

5) How do you view the continued codification of human rights norms and standards in the form of declarations, conventions, treaties, comments, etc?

Is this a wholly positive development or do you have any apprehensions that the human rights apparatus is becoming too specialized/compartmentalized, with special interest groups showing disproportionate focus on their respective area(s) only (women, children, indigenous, minority rights, right to life, etc)?


Human Rights standard-setting has always been responsive to perceived problems and violations of human rights. I relate this story in a chapter I wrote on the normative process for the Oxford Handbook on Human Rights. What I am most concerned about, as I said above, are efforts to water down the standards and the UN implementation machinery. The legal standard used to be that Governments must comply in letter and in spirit with their normative obligations. Nowadays, uniform standards of implementation are under assault as from various quarters, including the argument that the content of governmental obligation is to be judged in the light of its social or ideological system. International law is here under severe challenge.

6) You have written or edited numerous books and articles on international law, human rights, and the United Nations. Your latest book: “The Advent of Universal Protection of Human Rights: Theo van Boven and the Transformation of the UN Role” has been described as “a priceless study of leadership and strategy.”

What inspired and motivated you to write the latest book?


I consider the human rights leadership of Theo van Boven to have been the most decisive of any UN leader to date when it comes to the protection of human rights. As his Special Assistant, I worked closely with him. I felt that the leadership he provided and the creativity he marshaled had to be recorded for history and for the future quest for the international protection of human rights.

7) Can you share a story or insight gained from your time working with Professor van Boven that highlights the vision, moral fortitude, and ethics he espoused?


He was always of the view that one had to deal not only with the symptoms of gross violations of human rights but with their root causes. Human rights work can be put into two categories: seed-planting work or fire-brigade work. Both are needed. But in the long-term seed-planting is what will assure long-term protection within countries: strengthening national protection systems.

8) What do you hope the reader will take away after reading your book, especially your plead in the conclusion on the need for a “new burst of creativity in the development of UN protection of human rights…” and a “period of innovation for human rights protection”? What steps are required to bring this about?


I think that the most important thing to be done is for the United Nations to systematically work with Governments on the enhancement of their national protection systems. The UN should publish periodically a World Report on National Protection Systems. This should be a positive, cooperative report. Its rationale would be to focus on the centrality of national protection systems.

9) What final thoughts or observations do you want to leave us with or want us to take away from this discussion?


I am particularly concerned about efforts to water down the standards and the UN implementation machinery. Powerful forces are leading this assault. The UN Secretary-General must provide leadership in this struggle. The UN High Commissioner for human rights has to follow three lode-stars: intellectual and normative leadership; trouble-shooting; and diplomacy. The High-Commissioner’s task is becoming more and more delicate. The Secretary-General must be the ultimate bulwark.



About the interviewee

Dr. Ramcharan’s accolades include a career of over 30 years in the UN, including as former UN Deputy/Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights, Director at the UN peacekeeping operation for the Former Yugoslavia, Director of the Africa I Division of the Department of Political Affairs, and head of the speech-writing service of the UN Secretary-General. His contributions to academia have covered as Chancellor of the University of Guyana, as Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and at the Geneva Graduate Institute of International Studies (HEI), as Senior Fellow at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies and visiting professor of international law in Lund University, Sweden. Dr. Ramcharan was President of the NGO UPR-Info from 2011 to 2015, and served on the Board of Geneva for Human Rights. He holds a doctorate from the London School of Economics.

Among his many publications are:

The Advent of Universal Protection of Human Rights: Theo van Boven and the Transformation of the UN Role (Springer Biographies), which provides an insider view of the critical contributions of Theo van Boven within the UN human rights apparatus (published December 2018 by Springer Biographies); and

Conflict Prevention in the UN’s Agenda 2030: Development, Peace, Justice and Human Rights, by Bertrand Ramcharanand Robin Ramcharan, which spearheaded discussions of the conflict prevention dimension in the UN’s Agenda 2030 which seeks to advance sustainable development with a view to reinforcing peace and justice on the foundations of respect for universal human rights (published April 2020, Springer Publishers).



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