GENEVA (AN) — The departing U.N. human rights chief has a message — and warning — before stepping down from his post later this month: people's rights, not those of governments, must be strongly defended with populist-driven authoritarianism on the rise.
"Oppression is making a comeback. Repression is fashionable again," said Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, a Jordanian prince and diplomat appointed to head the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, in 2014.
Zeid, the first person of Asian, Muslim and Arab descent to hold the post, said the real pressure in his job comes from "victims and those who suffer" because they depend on the U.N. human rights office.
"Governments are more than capable of defending themselves. It’s not my job to defend them. I have to defend civil society, vulnerable groups, the marginalized, the oppressed," he said during a videotaped interview with the U.N.'s self-reported UN News.
"And so, we look at the law, we look at the obligations of states, and our job is to defend the individual victims, vulnerable communities, marginalized communities or oppressed communities," he said.
The start of his job, Zeid recalled, coincided with some terrible videos put online by the Islamic State extremist group that stoked a great deal of fear and horror and led to "sort of a deepening of the crisis in Syria and in Iraq" that merged with a couple of other concerning trends.
One of those trends was "a great determination to embark on counter-terrorism strategies, which we felt were, in part, excessive in certain respects. Every country has an obligation to defend its people, and the work of terrorism is odious and appalling and needs to be condemned and faced," he said.
"But whenever there is excessive action, you don’t just turn one person against the state, you turn the whole family against the state," he said. "Ten or maybe more members could end up moving in the direction of the extremists."
The second big area of concern, said Zeid, had to do with the "migration debates and the strengthening of the demagogues and those who made hay out of what was happening in Europe for political profit. As each year passed, we began to see a more intense pressure on the human rights agenda."
Saying the unpopular thing
During his first experience of the U.N. system in the 199os within former Yugoslavia, Zeid said he "saw what catastrophes silence can bring. And I think from that point on, I was determined not to be silent when the evidence before us was presented."
Earlier in August, Chile’s former president Michelle Bachelet was tapped to succeed Zeid as head of the U.N. human rights office, after her approval by the U.N. General Assembly and appointment by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. The 193-nation assembly’s decision was taken by consensus.
Bachelet served as Chile’s first female president from 2006 to 2010, and again held that office from 2014 to 2018. She takes over OHCHR at the start of September. Human rights is one of the three main pillars of the U.N. system, along with development and peace and security.
Guterres called Bachelet “a pioneer, a visionary, a woman of principle, and a great human rights leader for these troubled times.” She will be the seventh high commissioner since the Geneva-based U.N. human rights office was created in 1993.
In a statement, Zeid said Bachelet has “all the attributes — courage, perseverance, passion and a deep commitment to human rights — to make her a successful high commissioner.”
"I can tell you in almost every meeting I sit with governments and I say things that I know they would never have heard before from someone in the U.N.," he said.
As the sixth high commissioner, Zeid has been particularly outspoken in calling out governments and leaders around the world, which he considers a vital function of his job.
“I always felt that that is the principle task: we provide technical assistance, we collect information, we go public on it,” he said. “But in overall terms, the central duty for us is to defend the rights of those most marginalized and those that need it.”
Asked if there were times when he had to compromise too much or let human rights campaigners down, Zeid said that was not the case because he spoke out in a way that “broke new ground” in his job.
“I can tell you in almost every meeting I sit with governments and I say things that I know they would never have heard before from someone in the U.N.,” he said.
Carefully planned statements
He also has been an outspoken critic of U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies. In early June, for example, his office said the Trump administration was violating children’s rights under international law by breaking up families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
The office said the U.S. policy of separating children from their parents also was being applied to asylum-seekers and other migrants in vulnerable situations. The American ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley issued a sharp rebuke in response to the criticism.
Later that month, Zeid called on the United States to halt the policy, saying it resulted in the separation of nearly 2,000 migrant children from their parents after entering the United States from Mexico. He said it was “unconscionable” for any nation to do so in the name of preventing parents from migrating.
The Trump administration, in another act of defiance against the international community, announced in June it had decided to withdraw the United States from the U.N. Human Rights Council, the world’s top international organization for human rights, claiming it is biased against Israel.
“Disappointing, if not really surprising, news. Given the state of human rights in today’s world, the U.S. should be stepping up, not stepping back,” Zeid said of the move on Twitter.
Asked by UN News if he had tried "quiet diplomacy" at times, Zeid said he was "always trying to use quiet diplomacy" through meetings, letters and phone calls with government officials.
"But on occasion we make a determination that we’ve tried these tracks, it hasn’t worked, and that I’m going to go public," he said. "Sometimes, I asked my spokesperson to do it; sometimes, I ask my regional office to do it; and other times, I’ll do it myself. But it’s carefully thought through."