On September 1st, Jordanian diplomat Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein stepped down from his post as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. As his four-year term drew to a close, he cited what he called an “appalling” climate for human rights advocacy around the world. He also expressed his concern that in order to be reappointed, he would need to tone down his criticism of governments and leaders who saw human rights as an inconvenience. This he was unwilling to do. He insisted that “We’ve been fair with everyone and firm with everyone.”
Zeid spoke of the enormous toll of two world wars, the Holocaust and the Spanish influenza epidemic, and the loss of 100 million lives that finally brought about the formation of the United Nations — and a mindset that had countries trying to solve problems together, rather than “at the expense of one another.”
The soft-spoken diplomat often incurred the wrath of governments that he and his Council took to task for a disregard of human rights. This included Myanmar, Israel, the Philippines, and also the United States. In fact, the U.S. withdrew from the Human Rights Council last June because of what it claimed was “chronic bias against Israel” — while Donald Trump engaged in his own human rights violations, earning him his own criticism from the human rights chief.
When accused of his office “shaming” governments, Zeid clarified:
“We have to put up a mirror before all governments,” he said. “They shame themselves when they deprive their people of their basic necessities for a dignified life. They shame themselves when they discriminate against parts of their communities. They shame themselves when they stoke fear and make people fear that they have to bend to the will of the government or face consequences.”
The human rights chief wrote forcefully and eloquently in his piece in the Economist just before stepping down:
“That Crimea can be seized by Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, in violation of international law, also speaks volumes about the attitudes of the major powers. When Syria’s civilian population and medical facilities can be bombed daily, its people tortured and starved year after year, for seven years, is there any law at all? The same could be said of Yemen. And then there is Libya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Mali, Somalia, Burundi, Cameroon, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
And the lesson? Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and the League of Nations did nothing, could do nothing, to prevent or reverse it—with the dictator of Nazi Germany taking note. Who is taking note now?”
And now, after heading up the leading global organization for the defense of human rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein made an astounding admission. He expressed his clear hope for real change as residing not with the global organizations, “self-serving and weak leadership”, nor with international law and the security architecture — but with grassroots leaders doing the hard work of human rights around the globe. He acknowledged and asked support for the “leaders of communities and social movements, big and small, who are willing to forfeit everything—including their lives—in defence of human rights.”