Council of Europe Elects First Female Commissioner for Human Rights

Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights
Credit: Gunnar Vrang via Wikimedia Commons

On April 1, 2018, the recently elected Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe (COE), Dunja Mijatović, took office as the first female to hold the position. See COE, The Commissioner. Mijatović, a national of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was elected in January of this year by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), which elects the Commissioner as well as the judges of the European Court of Human Rights. [Council of Europe Press Release] Mijatović is recognized for her twenty years of experience working on human rights, particularly the right to freedom of expression. Most recently, she held the position of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Representative on Freedom of the Media and is the only woman to hold that position as well. See COE, Biography; OSCE, Harlem Désir.

The Commissioner for Human Rights is tasked with the promotion and protection of human rights among the 47 Member States of the Council of Europe through discussions, guidance, and awareness raising on human rights. See COE, The Mandate. Gender parity in positions at supranational bodies is an ongoing concern and a goal that civil society and supranational bodies have pushed for through campaigns; in September 2017, the United Nations Secretary General unveiled an internal UN campaign for gender parity within the organization, and the GQUAL campaign, started in 2015, is a civil society-run effort to establish equitable representation of women in human rights bodies. [IJRC: GQUAL; UN News Centre]


On January 24, 2018, the PACE elected Mijatović to a six-year nonrenewable term during its plenary session in Strasbourg, France, from a list of three potential candidates. [COE Parliamentary Assembly Press Release] Mijatović, who received 107 of the votes in the second round of voting, was closely followed by Pierre-Yves Le Borgn’, who received 103 votes. [COE Parliamentary Assembly Press Release]

The COE Committee of Ministers selected and forwarded the list of three candidates, which contained Mijatović; Goran Klemenčič, a Slovenian national; and Pierre-Yves Le Borgn’, a French national, on November 23, 2017. See COE Parliamentary Assembly, Election of the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Doc. No. 14444. Klemenčič has worked on human rights at both the regional and universal level, including the European Court of Human Rights, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the UN Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture. See id. Le Borgn’ has experience working on human rights at the regional level as a member of the PACE, where he participated as the rapporteur on implementation of European Court judgments. See id.

On December 12, 2017, a committee within the PACE convened to hold a hearing on the selection of candidates, during which the committee interviewed each candidate for 30 minutes. Following the interviews, the committee deliberated on its preferences among the candidates, considering the candidates’ applications, interviews, and responses to questions. Finally, the committee prepared a list of the order of preferences, which the PACE would later vote on, with Mijatović ranking second among the list of candidates. See COE Parliamentary Assembly, Election of the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. When the full Parliamentary Assembly met to vote during its session on January 23, 2018, it first failed to reach an absolute majority on any one candidate, meaning no candidate received more than half the total votes. The PACE scheduled a second round of voting for the following day, where only a relative majority was required, meaning one candidate only had to receive more votes than any other candidate. See COE, Election of the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights 23 January 2018.

After obtaining her post, Mijatović expressed her commitment to protecting human rights across Europe, noting that “no country is beyond scrutiny.” [Council of Europe Press Release] She added that she prioritizes the implementation of human rights standards, and to that end, emphasized the importance of engagement and dialogue at all levels of society, including State governments and civil society. [Council of Europe Press Release]

Election Procedure

Member States may nominate candidates from any of the Council of Europe Member States in a letter to be submitted to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe. See Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, Resolution (99) 50, On the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, 7 May 1999, at art. 9(2). The Committee of Ministers selects three candidates, and the candidate with the majority of votes before the PACE is elected to office. See id. at art. 9(1). There have been three previous commissioners: Alvaro Gil-Robles, as first Commissioner, served from 1999-2006; Thomas Hammarberg, served from 2006-2012; and Nils Muižnieks, served from 2012-2018. [Council of Europe Press Release]

Mandate of the Position

The office of the COE Commissioner for Human Rights engages in three primary areas of work to fulfill its objective. The Commissioner conducts country visits to discuss human rights issues with governments and civil society; provides guidance on human rights through reports, opinions, and issue papers; and participates in activities to raise awareness on human rights topics affecting Member States. See COE, The Mandate.

The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted Resolution (99) 50 in 1999 to establish the post of Commissioner for Human Rights. See Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, Resolution (99) 50, On the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, 7 May 1999. The Committee of Ministers considered that the Council of Europe seeks to maintain unity across Europe, including through maintaining and promoting human rights, and accordingly decided to create a non-judicial and independent body that will promote, protect, and advise on human rights. See id. at art. 3. The resolution mandating the Commissioner instructs that the Commissioner will report annually to the Committee of Ministers and the PACE, respond to requests made by those bodies, and cooperate with other institutions working on human rights. See id. According to the resolution, the Commissioner will interact with Member States, individuals, and organizations. See id.

Gender Parity in Supranational Bodies

Recognizing a significant gap in gender representation across international courts and human rights bodies, the GQUAL campaign, which is led by a non-governmental organization, was launched in 2015 to promote more equitable representation of women in those institutions. See GQUAL, FAQs. [IJRC: GQUAL] International jurists, journalists, scholars, and politicians have supported the campaign. [IJRC: GQUAL] The GQUAL campaign is focused on changing nomination and voting practices in the election of officials to international human rights bodies, with the goal of ultimately changing the composition of those bodies. See GQUAL, About GQUAL. [IJRC: GQUAL] As of 2015, GQUAL reported that regional human rights bodies were composed of no more than 25 percent women, and as of January 2018, 18 of the 57 UN special procedures mandates have never been held by a woman. See GQUAL, Closing the Gender Gap: Achieving Gender Parity in UN human rights bodies (2018). [IJRC: GQUAL]

More recently and within the UN, the Secretary General António Guterres announced early this year that the UN has already achieved gender parity within senior management at the organization after he launched in 2017 a plan to achieve parity within senior leadership by 2021 and within the entire UN by 2028. [UNRIC Press Release] At the time Guterres launched the campaign, only 32 percent of senior leaders at the UN were women. [UN News Centre] Notably, the position of Secretary General has never been held by a woman; Guterres, who assumed his role as Secretary General in January 2017, won out against eight other candidates for the role, four of whom were women. [IJRC: Guterres; IJRC: Dialogues]

Additional Information

For more information on the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, European human rights bodies, and women’s human rights, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub. To stay up-to-date on international human rights law news, visit IJRC’s News Room or subscribe to the IJRC Daily.