I spent four years defending human rights at the U.N. — and they’ve never been more at risk.
In the video Op-Ed above, a former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, argues that world leaders are weak, shortsighted and mediocre, and no longer willing or able to defend human rights. Abuses used to be called out and stopped, and human rights offenders had something to fear. Today, they are met with silence instead.
–Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein speech warning of the Far right populist take over of the EU
The Hague, September 2016. The speech from the UN high commissioner for human rights was not expected to ruffle feathers. A mild appeal to our better angels and then back to the canapés—traditionally, as one UN speechwriter puts it, “we don’t use adjectives, we don’t name names.”
But instead of platitudes, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called out a parade of “xenophobes, populists and racists”: Wilders, Orbán, Le Pen, Trump and—in the same breath—Islamic State (IS). He shook with rage. The room was stunned into silence, then burst into a standing ovation. One ambassador present calls it “a moment of pure authenticity, emotion and reason.” A friend calls it Zeid’s “quantum leap.” But this was not simply a frustrated UN chief shooting from the hip. “He knew exactly what he was doing,” says his wife, Sarah.
There is an air of battered decency to the UN’s top official on human rights. Partly jet lag and the debilitating wade through undrained swamps of bureaucratic treacle. Partly bearing witness to the worst of humanity. As a junior UN official in Bosnia, he was profoundly marked by the sight of the skull of a child as a trophy on a warlord’s car. In a recent statement on Myanmar, he asked: “What kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk. And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by security forces who should be protecting her?”
But the weariness is also something deeper. This is a man watching his worldview come under relentless assault. Zeid was a global citizen before the idea went in and then out of fashion. His grandmother was the Turkish painter Fahrelnissa Zeid, his mother Swedish and his Iraqi father is now Lord Chamberlain of Jordan. He was also an outsider before he became an insider. An Arab who took up rugby to survive his English private school. A Hashemite prince who struggled through military service and grew a beard to appear less European in the Royal court.
All this makes Zeid hard to label. “To the intolerant, I’m a sort of global nightmare, elected by all governments, yet critic of almost all. A Muslim, who is—confusingly to racists—white skinned.”
As the forces of extremism have grown stronger, Zeid’s rhetoric has matched it. Trump is guilty of “state-sponsored child abuse.” IS are creating a “harsh, mean-spirited, house of blood,” while the response from Arab regimes is “trying to put a fire out with gasoline.” The Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte “needs a psychiatrist.” The five permanent Security Council members “must answer to the victims” for the persistent use of the veto. Zeid has jettisoned quiet diplomacy.
His four-year term finishes on the last day of August. Most UN chiefs put themselves forward for a second term, but Zeid saw the writing on the wall. “To be re-elected in my job would be to fail,” because it would mean a series of punches pulled with member states. Now he is leaving, the last of the few global leaders willing to speak out about human rights abuses, what does that mean for the state of the world?
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein (@raad_zeid) served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2014 to 2018. Previously he spent 18 years as a diplomat helping to establish the International Criminal Court and serving on the Security Council. He is now the Distinguished Global Leader in Residence at the Perry World House, University of Pennsylvania.