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The Human Rights Prince

The Human Rights Prince

Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, a member of Jordan’s royal family and its ambassador to the United Nations, has been tapped as the U.N.’s next High Commissioner for Human Rights, placing a senior Arab diplomat who has pushed for a war crimes investigation in Syria into the world’s most prominent human rights job.

Prince Zeid, 50, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for the U.N.’s top job in 2006, has extensive human rights credentials, having served from 2002 to 2005 as president of the International Criminal Court’s membership body, which promotes international compliance with the court’s prosecutions and is responsible for amendments to the treaty establishing the international tribunal. He’s also shown a willingness to take on the U.N. itself: In 2004, he led a wide-ranging internal review of sexual misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers. Prince Zeid also recently co-sponsored a French-drafted U.N. resolution calling for an ICC investigation in Syria. The measure was vetoed by Russia and China, but the superpowers nevertheless backed Prince Zeid’s appointment for the human rights job.

Prince Zeid’s nomination — which requires approval by the 193-member U.N. General Assembly — comes after the world body’s five largest powers, including the United States, signed off on the move. While the council’s so-called P5 — Russia, China, Britain, France, and the United States — have no formal role in selecting the U.N. human rights chief, they have traditionally been consulted by the U.N. secretary-general to make sure they have no serious objections to the pick.

If confirmed, as seems virtually certain, Prince Zeid would be charged with calling attention to instances of widespread human rights violations in places like Syria and South Sudan and then rallying international support for holding perpetrators to account for their crimes. The current high commissioner, Navi Pillay, has overseen a commission of inquiry into rights abuses in Syria and sought to rally support for an ICC prosecution of alleged Syrian war criminals. The high commissioner also leads a broad network of human rights specialists who carry out investigations into rights abuses committed in most countries where the U.N. has peacekeeping missions.

In choosing Prince Zeid, Ban displayed his preference for diplomatic hires, passing over several other prominent human rights advocates, including Asma Jahangir, a former president of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association who served for more than a decade as a U.N. human rights expert on arbitrary executions and freedom of religion.

Human rights advocates reacted favorably to Prince Reid’s selection for the job.

"Prince Zeid’s work on sexual violence and his leadership on the international criminal court give a good foundation for this new role," said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "As states in his region silence civil society and crush peaceful protests, the real test for Prince Zeid will be his willingness to stand up to abusive governments and speak out for those facing injustice and human rights violations worldwide."

Prince Zeid — a cousin of Jordan’s King Abdullah II — worked as a U.N. political officer in Bosnia during the war in the 1990s and served two stints as Jordan’s U.N. ambassador. As ambassador, Prince Zeid helped spearhead an effort to adopt a U.N. General Assembly resolution calling on the U.N. to conduct a comprehensive review of its failure to stop the massacre of several thousand Bosnian men in Srebrenica.

Last year, Prince Zeid led a quixotic campaign to boycott a U.N. conference on international justice — sponsored by Vuk Jeremic of Serbia, then-president of the U.N. General Assembly — because he believed Serbia would manipulate the forum and use it as a platform for unfairly criticizing the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The United States and Canada subsequently joined the boycott. The conference went ahead without them.

Prince Zeid told Foreign Policy at the time that Jeremic "had done little to conceal his motives" of transforming the event into a forum for bashing the international tribunal. "I was in the former Yugoslavia from 1994 to 1996 and, in view of what I know to be true, will also, together with my delegation, be nowhere near the event."

Within the U.N.’s diplomatic community, Prince Zeid has emerged as the sharpest critic of the U.N.’s own human rights failings. In a recent Security Council meeting addressing sexual abuse against women, Prince Zeid expressed frustration that the U.N. and its member states have failed to hold U.N. peacekeepers to account for rights abuses.

"Let us be clear about what it is we are saying by our inaction," he told the Security Council in April. "We are saying that it is okay by us when a United Nations civilian staff member commits rape in a United Nations peacekeeping mission, where the host country has no functioning judiciary and when the country of nationality cannot exercise its criminal jurisdiction extraterritorially over the accused because it has no law allowing it to do so. Is that our view?"