'The moment we do not support the human rights agenda we see it rolling back in many parts of the world' – Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein

18 January 2016

In September 2002, Zeid was elected the first President of the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. At that time, the Court was only a plan on paper, and over the next three years he oversaw the election of the first 18 judges, mediated selection of the Court’s first president, and led efforts to name the Court’s first prosecutor – laying out a functioning institution, despite considerable budgetary pressures and criticism of the Court from several leading nations.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has a long-running association with the United Nations.

It began with his service as a civilian peacekeeper with the UN operation in the former Yugoslavia (UNPROFOR) between 1994 and 1996. It includes serving as Jordan’s Deputy Permanent Representative and then later Permanent Representative to the UN from 1996 to 2007, and again as the latter between 2010 and 2014. His second stint as Permanent Representative saw him serve as President of the UN Security Council and chair its 1533 and 1521 committees in relation to two sanctions regimes regarding the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Liberia.

The veteran diplomat’s work at the UN included playing a central role in the establishment of the International Criminal Court, chairing the complex negotiations regarding the elements of individual offences amounting to genocide; crimes against humanity; and war crimes.

Zeid’s knowledge of peacekeeping is extensive. In 2004, following allegations of widespread abuse being committed by UN peacekeepers, he was named Advisor to the Secretary-General on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. His report, produced in 2005, provided, for the first time, a comprehensive strategy for the elimination of sexual exploitation and abuse in UN peacekeeping operations, and has been called “revolutionary” by experts. In 2012, Zeid was chosen by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as one of five experts to serve on his “Senior Advisory Group” regarding reimbursements to countries contributing peacekeeping troops.

In the diplomatic world, you’re negotiating, there is some etiquette involved – in the world of human rights, and particularly from the side of the High Commissioner, it’s a lot of straight-talking and it creates tension which in the past I never used to experience.

He left the world of diplomacy behind some 15 months ago, when he assumed his functions as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on 1 September 2014. He is the seventh individual to lead the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the first Asian, Muslim and Arab to do so.

He spoke with the UN News Centre about the challenges ahead in human rights and the challenges of serving as High Commissioner after a career in multilateral diplomacy.

UN News Centre: What are the biggest challenges ahead in 2016 for human rights?

High Commissioner Zeid: The rise of violent extremism and extremist thinking has greatly affected the way in which governments approach human rights, and, in particular, we’ve seen governments put pressure on civil society as a way to fend off extremist thinking. But from our point of view, it does the reverse – repressive measures actually produce more extremist thinking and this is the central challenge, the dilemma if you will, that we face today in the human rights world: the rise of extremist thinking and then the policies of governments which, unless they support a human rights agenda, only reinforce the narrative of extremist ideologies, and civil society is caught in between. Everywhere we look it is under pressure.

UN News Centre: Why is the “human rights agenda” not getting the support it needs?

High Commissioner Zeid: I think part of the reason is that civil society over many years has proven itself to be really quite a force to be reckoned with and there is now a pushback against that – partly because of the violent extremism, but also because, I think, their power to move popular opinion has proven itself. So governments are trying to cope with that. It is a very critical, delicate moment we are passing through.

UN News Centre: What will it take to pass through that “moment” successfully?

High Commissioner Zeid: A continued support in defence of human rights. This requires constant work. The moment we do not support the human rights agenda we see it rolling back in many parts of the world. So it requires constant speaking out and reaching out to governments, and beyond that. One of the main challenges is that governments have yet to fully accept criticism from an outside source, a UN source. It creates tensions back at home, but we think it is right to shed a light on these violations where they occur because in many parts of the world we have seen that backlash or a regression in the way that human rights need to be upheld. It’s a constant effort that’s required to keep the momentum going forward on the human rights agenda.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein discusses the challenges associated with protecting and promoting human rights worldwide. Credit: United Nations

UN News Centre: Human rights did figure in the climate change conference in Paris (COP21) in December last year – what is the link between climate change and human rights?

High Commissioner Zeid: If climate change is not addressed – and I’d like to point out that in the final text at COP21, there was included in the preamble section a reference to human rights and this is important because if reflects the importance the international community gives to human rights in this context – you’re going to see a denial of rights in many respects. In the case of many of the islands, there will be a denial of almost the right to life in some cases, a denial of the right to health, a denial of the right to education… and all of that is a consequence of unchecked climate change.

UN News Centre: With the intense focus on the humanitarian aspects of the current refugee crisis, is the human rights aspect being overlooked?

In the diplomatic world, you’re negotiating, there is some etiquette involved – in the world of human rights, and particularly from the side of the High Commissioner, it’s a lot of straight-talking and it creates tension which in the past I never used to experience.

High Commissioner Zeid: Refugees have protections under the 1951 convention. But if you’re not a refugee it does not mean that you don’t have human rights – you also have human rights. And this is what we want governments to recognise. All too often the mistake is made that if you’re not a refugee then you can be denied access to counsel, access to individual remedy and so forth. And that’s what we have to assure ourselves doesn’t happen. Also, you have the other effect which is rising xenophobia. We see it in the context of what we see today in Europe – Islamophobia as well, incitement in many respects from various political leaders, or language which comes very close to incitement – and all of it I think is a concern for the human rights community.

UN News Centre: Turning to your personal experience now, at the age of 30 you were a civilian peacekeeper during the height of the conflict in the Balkans in the mid-1990s. Some might say that’s an odd choice given your background. Why did you choose to do that and how has that experience informed later steps on your path?

High Commissioner Zeid: It’s so long ago I can’t even remember why I sent in my application! But it was the starting point of what was for me a role in helping create the International Criminal Court. I came to New York in 1996, the negotiations on the draft text of the Rome Statute began in 1995. So after having experienced the horrors, the disasters, the catastrophes of war, it was the starting point for me to then get involved in the creation of the court. There was a very direct link.

UN News Centre: With some 15 months in the role of High Commissioner now, is the job what you thought it would be?

High Commissioner Zeid: It’s much tougher than I thought it would be – I thought it would be tough, but it’s really a tough, tough job because it seems to be a case of constant confrontation. In the diplomatic world, you’re negotiating, there is some etiquette involved – in the world of human rights, and particularly from the side of the High Commissioner, it’s a lot of straight-talking and it creates tension which in the past I never used to experience. You see the atmosphere can often be very tense with many of the authorities that we deal with. So that’s different.

UN News Centre: How have you managed that change – going from a diplomatic background and approach to having to speak very bluntly – is it a hard jump to make?

High Commissioner Zeid: It is a hard jump because I knew that one had to speak out. [Although] I didn’t anticipate how strong the responses would be – this is part of the job and you learn to adapt to it. But it was a revelation. I said when I first took up the post that my wife had said to me that “you’re going to quickly lose many of your friends” and I think that’s probably true! Especially with many friends that I had made in governments. I noticed this also in the General Assembly at the opening session. Walking down the hall and you’d see old friends avert their eyes, they don’t even want to look at you, they’re moving off to one side. This is natural. I probably would have been the same if I was the Permanent Representative of a country which has just been criticised by the High Commissioner and they’re coming head to head in the corridor. That was different!

UN News Centre: So you could say the job requires developing a thick skin…

High Commissioner Zeid: You said it – absolutely.

UN News Centre: As the UN’s most senior official on human rights, you are out there speaking out on the issue constantly, sometimes to a less-than-receptive audience. What toll does the job take on you?

High Commissioner Zeid: When you listen to the victims of human rights violations it is very hard. Emotionally it is very hard. In many cases you feel that you can’t do very much. You can speak but what can you do for someone who has lost their child or has been tortured so severely and they look to you to resolve all of their problems? You sometimes feel that you’re inadequate to the task at hand. This is not a job that is unemotional; this is a very emotional job for anyone who defends human rights. It’s not so much in these meeting rooms, it’s when you do the visits and you sit with families of those who have been lost or disappeared or those who have been tortured. That’s very tough. And I will openly admit I sometimes wonder how is it possible for one to keep on doing this – it takes its toll.

UN News Centre: This may be too soon to ask, but when you do finish your term as High Commissioner, what do you hope to be able to look back and say was accomplished?

High Commissioner Zeid: You’re right: it is too soon to ask that question. I’m not going to go there yet! We have a reform agenda in the office, I hope to put that through. And we fight one battle at a time, and there are so many that I can’t possibly at this stage say what I would have liked looking back. But we’ll do this interview in two years’ time.

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