How do you lead a fight for human rights in a world where mass slaughter of civilians goes unpunished, where populists and autocrats are rising — and where the United States no longer leads a global pushback against human rights crimes?
This is what I asked Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, a most unusual man who recently stepped down from four years as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (a separate office from the controversial U.N. Human Rights Council).
A Jordanian prince whose father is Arab and mother European, a Muslim who has visited Auschwitz and bicycled around Israel, he is a fervent believer in “the human rights of each individual, everywhere.” A soft-spoken man who talks with hard-edged eloquence, he took on an impossible job, challenging violators on all sides, whether American, Russian, Chinese, African, Arab, Israeli, or other. And doing it publicly.
He is reflecting on those difficult years as a Distinguished Global Leader-in-Residence at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, where he shared some of his thoughts.
What surprised him most about the U.N. post?
“I think I knew there would be strong pushback from governments,” he replied, “but I didn’t anticipate the degree of human suffering, the feeling of inadequacy. I could give speeches, do reports and press conferences, but it was not equal to the need to alleviate the suffering.”
So Zeid (as the prince is referred to) decided he had to “just come out swinging,” contrary to the U.N.’s keep-your-head-down culture. Those whom he criticized pushed back harshly.
His arrival on the job “coincided with the horrific beheadings that ISIS put online, and the sheer viciousness in Syria and Iraq was in full flower. There was the [civil war violence in] Central African Republic, Southern Sudan, then Myanmar and Yemen."
What worried him most was the absence of any constraints on human rights violations. “You see the severest degradation. Bombs hit schools, hospitals, marketplaces, and law seems not to matter at all. All rules of war were cast aside.”
The massive slaughter, suffering, and displacement of civilians breeds bitterness that has future implications, Zeid warns. “Today’s human rights violations will become tomorrow’s conflicts.”
Those concerns are especially troubling, he says, as a crop of nationalist populist leaders emerges in the USA and Europe who stoke ethnic and racial divisions. He says President Trump’s embrace of populist themes — and autocrats — has had a negative impact on human rights worldwide.
“It seems President Trump is drawn by authoritarian leadership that shows little respect for human rights. This feeds the perspective that the U.S. doesn’t care. When he attacks the U.S. media as ‘enemies of the people,’ two days later [an autocrat like] Cambodia’s Hun Sen uses the same language.”
Moreover, the U.S. withdrawal from its longtime bipartisan role as human rights defender gives autocratic regimes more leeway to repress with impunity, even on issues Washington cares about.
Zeid relates an episode in March 2018 where he was supposed to brief the U.N. Council on human rights outrages in Syria. When the United States supports such a briefing, as it did here, this used to guarantee the necessary votes for it to go forward. But given Washington’s current indifference to most human rights concerns, third-world council members felt comfortable abstaining or voting no.
“This was a huge signpost of what has happened to U.S. influence on human rights,” says Zeid. The occasional U.S. interest in particular human rights cases, such as Venezuela, has less impact because of its inconsistency.
The former UN official criticized U.S. human rights violations wherever he saw them. “It’s not like we gave a pass to the Obama administration,” he notes, mentioning Guantanamo, torture, and killing of Afghan civilians. “But we were able to talk to the U.S. administration under Obama. This doesn’t apply to the Trump administration.”
Zeid was as hard on violations by Arab states as those by Israelis. While he criticized Israeli killing of civilians in Gaza, he earned the ire of his own government with human rights critiques (despite being a former Jordanian ambassador to the United Nations and Washington).
Now he worries the world is drifting back to the complacency of the early 20th century, an age of globalization that was roiled by terrorism, populist nationalism, and a slow descent into unforeseen catastrophe. A student of the Holocaust (“I felt as an Arab I needed to understand it better"), he fears the rise of populism could produce similar horrors with different victims.
As the U.S. withdraws, international institutions like the United Nations, can’t cope with human rights issues. Nor do smaller countries have the clout.
Zeid sees the burden passing to individuals and civic organizations. He cites the students (including his daughter) who joined worldwide protests for climate change, begun by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg.
“This country,” he says of America, “has a rich tradition of civic action. This is the untapped power of the human rights movement.” That may be the best hope as we pass through turbulent times.