In Conversation with the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid: the worried conscience of the world

Books editor Sam Huckstep recently interviewed the outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein. His advice? ‘Go out there, and to believe that you can make a mark, because you probably will.'

Photo: Daily Beast

‘“Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”’

Those words come, famously, from George Orwell’s 1984, a book that seems constantly ‘of the moment’. Their warning is clearly close to the heart of the United Nations’ outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. In the past, with its two World Wars and previous failure to establish a peaceful international order, lies the origin of the organisation to which he has devoted much of his life; in the present, and its attitude towards the past, lies its future.

The role of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is a relatively new one. Its Office (the OHCHR) was founded in 1993 –the UN itself came into existence nearly fifty years prior, in 1945— with a mandate to hold governments and NGOs accountable for their human rights records; to both respond reactively to abuses, and to proactively take the global lead in establishing national and international human rights infrastructures; and, fundamentally, to promote the upholding of human rights throughout the global community.

Prince Zeid himself became High Commissioner in September 2014. Although his title is laid aside in his capacity as a representative of the UN, he is by birth a scion of the Jordanian Royal Family. For this reason many international observers raised eyebrows at his appointment to a position whose purpose, as he himself describes it, is to be ‘the global voice on human rights’: his job is to be the world’s conscience, a vitally important task which some suggested would be unlikely to be effectively discharged by a member of the ruling family of a country that is frequently criticised for its human rights record.

In fact, however, the High Commissioner’s unique background has provided him with a foot in every camp: he is, as he pronounced in a speech in 2016, ‘elected by all governments, and critic of almost all governments’, ‘a sort of nightmare’ to partisan demagogues across the globe. He has the ability to speak, therefore, as a representative of multiple groups. He is, he observes, ‘the first Asian and Muslim High Commissioner’— but he is also, as he further remarks, white. For individuals like Victor Orbain of Hungary, who ‘sees himself’, Zeid notes, ‘as the defender of White Christendom’, and like many ‘likes to present stereotypes of people—what a Muslim would look like, or what someone from an Arab or Muslim world would represent’, he ‘would often seem to be confusing’: he fits into few boxes.

In person, he is exceedingly mild-mannered. To read only his written memoranda or speeches, one would not necessarily expect this: they are filled with indignation and, not infrequently, precisely-penned invective. Soft-spoken and with delicately clipped intonation, he sits slightly hunched, one hand crossed over himself to cup an elbow while the other makes small gesticulations to illustrate his points. His eyes, framed behind thin-rimmed and gleaming glasses, are generally turned down towards his free hand as he speaks; occasionally, he alternates this with direct looks which are by turns mirthful, explanatory, searching, or at times exasperated. He is a distinctly unperformative speaker. In the week before this interview, his head of media told me, Zeid turned down requests from the New York Times, the BBC, and CNN’s Christiane Amanpour: what they are interested in, of course, are the content of his speech, rather than the method. In the current political climate, this is refreshing.

Educated first at John Hopkins, and then at Christ’s College, Cambridge, Zeid subsequently served for five years in the Jordanian army, before working for two years as a UN political officer in the former Yugoslavia. This was the beginning of a winding career leading up to the highest echelons of the UN’s bureaucracy. ‘If I hadn’t been in the former Yugoslavia,’ he muses, ‘would I have done all this work on the International Criminal Court, or on treaty negotiations, or… Maybe not; I think it was that that really crystallised my thinking’, resulting in his enduring preoccupation with the maintenance of the international system and the preservation of conditions conducive to the upholding of the rights of the individual.

In a few months, however, Prince Zeid will relinquish his role as global champion of human rights. The post of High Commissioner is filled in terms of four years each, and he is now approaching the end of his four years. He could seek to extend his tenure for another term, but will not. To ‘signal my attention to apply again for another four years,’ he says, ‘would require the agreement’ of the Permanent Five of the Security Council (the UK; he USA; China; France; and Russia). ‘It seemed to me inconceivable, given my discussions with them previously, that that agreement would be possible. Unless’ –laying careful emphasis upon the word— ‘I were to make, were to enter into, you know, a series of compromises, which I just wasn’t willing to do.’ To preserve his position would be, he implies, to simultaneously abandon it.

Instead of the current system, therefore, he suggests that the office be mandated as a single, fixed, non-renewable term of five or six years. ‘I would be suspicious,’ he says, speaking slowly and rubbing the bridge of his nose with his glasses, ‘in the future, if I saw a High Commissioner –knowing what the job is all about— seeking to extend and then being extended. I think that the way that at least I see the job, and the way that this job needs to be done –and I think rather a lot in the Office share this— I find it difficult to conceive of a continuation unless there is compromise.’ The moral conscience of the world cannot be beholden to the world: if the High Commissioner for Human Rights owes his political power, or even his position, to those whom he must criticise, the office cannot be effectively discharged.

When I ask what Zeid is most proud of, looking back at the end of his term, his answer comes quickly.

‘It’s always going to be the private letters and notes that are sent from the families, sometimes from the former victims themselves, if they have been released from detention in part because of the advocacy of the Office and the pressure put on by the Office; if they’ve been spared their life because the death penalty or death sentence was commuted to life, and the family then write to us— or the victims then write to us.’ It is a role of tremendous direct impact. And yet there ‘is a perception of the UN in the global north, that the UN is largely meeting rooms, largely the Security Council, and largely discussions that are interminable, sometimes very boring discussions, all at the expense of the states that are funding it.

‘To me,’ Zeid says emphatically, ‘the UN is more than that. The UN to me is going into an area of the world that is dangerous, unforgiving, where the victims are desperate for support, and you go in there, and you see the most courageous people doing extraordinary work; and that’s for me the UN.’

He illustrates his point with a personal anecdote. He recently visited Libya; two to three weeks before he entered the country, his team flew in to conduct some site visits. During their time in Tripoli they were ‘stopped by an armed group who then stepped aside, and they fired an RPG at the vehicle they were in. The only reason they were not killed is that the RPG was fired at too close a range, and so it didn’t detonate.’ The human rights team was held for a short amount of time, and then released; a fortnight later they returned with Zeid. ‘You know, going through that experience, where you could so easily have been killed, and then repeatedly to go back in, unarmed, without fear, is amazing. And that’s the UN. That’s for me the UN. It’s not the endless meetings.’

The UN does have its fair share of meetings, he clarifies— but the stereotypical meetings, at least, take part largely in what he calls the UN(m), ‘for Membership, which is the Security Council, the General Assembly, the governing bodies’, as opposed to ‘the UN(s), Secretariat’, which comprises the different institutions –Human Rights; Refugees; UNESCO— for which individuals work ‘not on behalf of the member states, each member state, but on behalf of the organisation as a whole.’ Zeid, before he joined the OHCHR, was for most of his career a representative of Jordan to the UN, working therefore within UN(m); but ‘what would stand out’ for him, despite the imbalance of time committed, ‘is the incredible work done by UN(s).’ That does not mean, he admits, ‘that there aren’t things that the UN shouldn’t be ashamed about.’ Indeed, as the Advisor to the Secretary General on (the very thorny issue of) Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN Peacekeeping from 2004-6, Zeid penned a damning memorandum –the ‘Zeid Report’— condemning the oversight of peacekeeping troops and arguing for significant reform. Zeid is clearly not a one-eyed partisan for the UN. ‘The issue of cholera in Haiti, decision-taking in Kosovo’, the general difficulties experienced by a vast supranational body dealing with enormously varied situations under a limited budget: the UN, he acknowledges, by its nature faces enormous challenges.

These are practical challenges, however. Of greater –greatest— worry to Zeid is a strategic one: ‘that we’re forgetting.’ ‘All of this international system,’ he explains, ‘the common security architecture, the human rights framework that we have in place, the whole system of separate bodies of international law… They are maintained through memory. They were created for a purpose. They were created by a generation that had lived through two world wars, and a holocaust. And they knew’ –he places great, but as always very careful, emphasis upon each word— ‘that it simply could not happen again.’ ‘For that reason, all of this,’ the UN, ‘was created. It wasn’t created to give diplomats, you know, work to do.’ ‘As this generation fades away,’ however, that memory, the recollection of the horrors of armed international competition, is also fading.

‘It seems lost on a new crop of political leaders,’ he says softly and sadly, ‘why it is that we have these systems in place— because you felt that if they understood the, the importance of them, they wouldn’t be attacking, you know, military facilities in Syria as they do, or in Yemen, or civilian targets. The law prohibits this, and only in a very narrow slice of situations could it be argued that there is a window under international humanitarian law. And yet it’s now happening with such regular occurrence that you have pressure on that, you have pressure on refugee law, and you have pressure on human rights law. And if all of this were to give, and the institutions supporting the law were to— would collapse… And we’re back, you know, to 1913, possibly, with competing balance of power interests, and raw political power, unguided, unchecked, no institutions to give interpretation as to who’s right, who’s wrong. And that’s where we’re headed if we don’t have something in place that’s clear.’

What is clear, however, is only that perceptions are becoming increasingly less clear, and that the political waters are being deliberately muddied across the globe. Then where are we headed? In the most recent meeting of the UN’s Security Council on Syria, Zeid remarks, he expected to give a briefing on human rights in the conflict –‘arguably the scene of some of the worst atrocities we’ve seen in recent times’— and yet representatives voted against his briefing. ‘Somehow,’ he says incredulously, they believed that ‘a briefing on human rights was not material to a discussion on Syria in the Security Council.’ But ‘if you’re not discussing the most extreme violations and denial of human rights in Syria, what on earth would you be discussing in the Security Council? I mean, you know, it’s just amazing. But that’s the situation we’re in.’ It’s a situation that would have seemed impossible a very short time ago. ‘When I served in the Security Council a few years ago,’ Zeid observes, ‘it would have been very strange— I mean, I can’t remember an occasion in which we didn’t have a briefing by Navi Pillay,’ Zeid’s predecessor as High Commissioner, ‘on account of a vote taken with regard to Syria. So this was new ground, and it’s signalling… again, it’s another sign of something not working right, potentially very consequential. I don’t know. I mean, I hope that at some stage there will be enough of a pause, and a thinking about this, so that you’re not beyond some point of no return.’

Those who are doing the thinking currently, he says, are embracing what he calls ‘the thinking of the thin; it’s a very narrow thinking, a very narrow thought’, ‘tribal, to a certain extent.’ These ‘narrow thinkers’ are the Trumps, the Geert Wilders, the Dutertes of world politics: the ‘populists, demagogues and political fantasists’. Their rhetoric ‘juxtaposes us, as somehow being pure –however you, and whoever we are— against them, who are, you know, sullying our culture and reputation and so forth. And it’s a wrong way of looking at it, of course, and we are only too aware of this— but it’s the peddling of fear. Because[…] once you get someone into a position in which they believe that everything is an existential threat, you can have your way with them, as a politician.’

‘These are not somehow new revelations to us,’ he continues. Even the nascent democracy of Athens, it is true, knew to be aware of demagoguery. To Zeid, this makes its reoccurrence, in the educated modern West, even more incredible. This piece began with a quotation from George Orwell; it could easily have originated with Zeid. There are few nations now attempting to systematically rewrite the past, but there are plenty of public figures picking and choosing to construct, to their benefit, their own narrations of it. He himself, decrying the approaches taken by modern leaders, presents as an exemplary warning the parallel practices of past leaders of infamy. ‘There’s a really interesting interview,’ he remarks, ‘between Gustav Gilbert, the US psychiatrist at Nuremberg, with Hermann Goering. And Goering basically reveals that [divisive approach] to Gilbert— and he said, very clearly, “make them feel that they’re under threat; whether you’re in a democracy, or otherwise. Anyone who is accusing you, paint them as unpatriotic: ‘they don’t see it’.” And he said, “you can move a population, in any direction you wish.”’

He pauses after relating this. ‘What’s really sickening,’ he goes on, ‘is that [modern leaders] have gone back into the trough’ to recover such approaches— another echo of Orwell, but this time Animal Farm. ‘They think they’re really smart,’ his voice laden with quiet sarcasm, ‘because they’re winning in the elections.’ In doing so, though, they forget that ‘we’ve gone through that, as humanity; it was catastrophic… That’s what I find so disturbing, of course. It’s seeming as though we simply don’t learn. And that with the passage of that generation, that last experienced, you know, the war from thirty-nine to forty-five, the problems could accelerate, because they at least are sentinels and have experienced the past and can tell us, “be careful.”’ He points back, for illustration, to a period in history which precedes even the generation of thirty-nine to forty-five: that of the tenure of Karl Lueger as Mayor of Vienna, in the 1890s. It’s an illustration to which Zeid has often returned in the past few years. Lueger was ‘a rabid anti-Semite, and he really was the person who mastered techniques of whipping up an anti-Semitic emotion. He was in many respects the inspiration for Adolf Hitler, in 1912’; Hitler lived in Vienna from 1907 to 1913.

‘Why should it be the case,’ he asks of modern conversation, that if there is ‘an immigrant accused of a crime, there is national press attention’, but that ‘if a non-immigrant commits a crime of equal gravity’, there is little attention? ‘The only response,’ he argues, ‘is that it’s actually vogue to somehow pick on a community that finds it difficult to defend itself, and you score points off their backs’. ‘That’s completely unacceptable’, he exclaims. It is to illustrate the effects of such language that he points back to Lueger. ‘A journalist asked him –I believe in 1896— how was it that you can be so virulently anti-Semitic, and yet have Jewish friends? And he said, well, I distinguish between the two. In other words, he understood that by being anti-Semitic, it curries, it wins you a lot of political support; but what he is saying is that he himself is not really anti-Semitic—  but he understood it to be a very useful political technique. And it’s profoundly dangerous and wrong on both counts. But that’s what we’re seeing, you know, in this discourse on migration and immigrants’, and more besides.

‘We have to somehow reverse this,’ he says. It is an undeniable statement. Who is to do this, however?— if the generation of old ‘sentinels’ is on the wane, and the new crop of leaders will pay no attention to the warnings of Zeid and others? Rodrigo Duterte, in fact, was so nettled by Zeid’s recent denunciation of his disregard for the rule of law and human rights consensus that he resorted to insulting his balding scalp. For Zeid, looking beyond such supposed luminaries, ‘my faith is in the youth; my faith is in those who can understand that it’s the future— I mean, it’s your future; you have your own lives to live— all of you have your own lives to live.’ It is the young –such as Zeid’s own daughter, already (and unsurprisingly) an activist out on the streets at fifteen— who will have to place on the existing infrastructure the pressure necessary to see it maintained and improved. ‘Those of us in the human rights camp are trying all we can to struggle, by pushing back and insisting [to nations] that the law is the law, and rules are rules, and rights are right’; but they are doing this in part, he says, because ‘we are worried.’ The states themselves, having acceded to human rights legislation voluntarily, are obliged to abide by them –‘it’s as simple as that’— but despite this ‘they’re not, any of them –I could perhaps say most of them— doing the right thing.’ Reading the OHCHR’s publicly-published reports, the blanket condemnation that the Office distributes suggests that Zeid may consider the latter qualification to be unnecessary.

‘You have inalienable rights,’ Zeid says quietly, now speaking universally in his role as universal conscience, ‘and there’s a binding obligation on the state to honour your rights as a citizen.’ With a reluctance on the part of signatory states to uphold them, and an increasing rhetorical emphasis upon such nebulous concepts as ‘dignity, values, shared values’ at the cost of those ‘inalienable rights’ –Zeid differentiates between the two— it falls, he argues, to the citizen to fight for their preservation. It falls especially, again, to the youth.

His advice is to ‘go out there, and to believe that you can make a mark, because you probably will. And even if you’re doing other things –you’re working for a firm, a company, a consultancy— you can still be a human rights defender in your free time. You can still be active. You can still volunteer. You can still be out there— protest; speak. And the interesting thing is that at the end of your career, you’ll probably look back and value that part of it more than everything else that you’ve done.’ Zeid speaks from immense experience.

Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein was speaking in St Andrews at the invitation of the Lafayette Club.


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