How High Is the New High Commissioner?
The U.N.'s new human rights chief has a pretty tall task ahead of him. Is Prince Zeid up to the job?
Jordanian Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, the U.N.’s newly appointed incoming High Commissioner for Human Rights has his work cut out for him. With a little panache and a low profile, Zeid’s predecessor, outgoing High Commissioner Navi Pillay has, partly by process of elimination, emerged as the most powerful single individual voice for human rights worldwide. Pillay has made headlines of late pronouncing that President Bashar al-Assad’s culpability for atrocities far exceeds that of the Syrian rebels, fingering Putin for rights abuses in Crimea, labeling South Sudan’s leader a possible war criminal, and calling out the Chinese government for denying the grim history of Tiananmen.
Pillay’s six-year stint as high commissioner ends in September. The combination of political shifts during her term of office and Pillay’s own belated embrace of the toughest — but most crucial — parts of her job have underlined the need for her successor to embody a troika of traits not often found in a single skin: unassailable credibility in dealing with diverse governments; fearless outspokenness; and a dogged commitment to strengthen an institution with untapped potential.
Though human rights, alongside peace and security and international development, stands as one of the U.N.’s three pillars, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights wasn’t even established until 1993; it still claims less than 3 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget. Yet the office has been led by some stars over the years, including formidable former Irish President Mary Robinson and the dashing late Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello.
The low-key Pillay, a former South African and international judge, got off to a slow start when appointed in 2008. She stood mum when the Iranian government squashed the Green Movement protests in the fall of 2009, and bent to pressure from Beijing in sitting out the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honoring jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
Pillay’s early tenure also laid bare a series of dire shortcomings in the office’s operational capabilities. Understaffed, lacking in expertise, and ill-equipped to deploy emergency missions, she was caught flat-footed when a newly activated U.N. Human Rights Council, the U.N.’s political body in charge of human rights, began creating fact-finding commissions that had to be dispatched in real time to document abuses in places like Ivory Coast, Libya, and Syria.
As one senior OHCHR staffer quipped to me, the commission was trying to race the Indy 500 driving a 1950s automobile. Hold-ups on personnel, funding, and contract extensions meant that, for example, the Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Libya had run out of money and staff just as that conflict reached its crescendo in the late summer of 2011.
Gradually, though, Pillay became more vociferously critical of the world’s most egregious human rights abusers, especially Assad. She has helped amass a formidable dossier that will provide essential evidence if the Syrian dictator and his men ever go to trial, and — until access made further accurate tallies impossible — meticulously tracked body counts that have forced the world to face the scale of the slaughter. She was also unsparing in her criticism after a visit to Sri Lanka, helping spur momentum that led to the establishment of a formal commission of inquiry into abuses over the ferocious objections of the Colombo government.
Of late, Pillay has spoken out more often against abuses by the most impervious governments in the U.N. Security Council chamber, Russia and China. She’s repeatedly briefed the council, notching a larger place for human rights on its agenda than ever before so that when security crises erupt in places like South Sudan or Ukraine, human rights information and imperatives directly inform council debates. Defying staunch opposition from many African governments, Pillay has pushed the U.N. to recognize and protect gay rights for the first time. Pillay has also expanded her office’s little-known but vitally important technical assistance work in places including Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Tunisia. After witnessing first-hand the pyrotechnics that surrounded the treatment of Israel within the U.N.’s human rights system at the time the 2009 Goldstone Report was released, Pillay has mostly walked a careful line, calling out Israel for seizures of Palestinian lands and settler violence, but not making it a centerpiece of her tenure.
The rising importance of the high commissioner’s role is in part a reflection of the loss of other key voices. Human rights heroes have become more elusive: Nelson Mandela is dead. Aung San Suu Kyi is angling hard for Myanmar’s presidency and is mostly silent on egregious interethnic violence in her country. They haven’t been replaced by a new generation of icons with comparable moral stature. Western governments and heads of states who call out abuses — President Barack Obama included — are fast accused of hypocrisy, selectivity, or first-world bias. That backlash has spilled over to color the work of leading Western-based human rights groups: U.S.-linked technical assistance providers like Freedom House and the National Democratic Institute are being pushed out of unfriendly countries and forced to shut down longstanding programs from Egypt to Russia to the United Arab Emirates.
But with the imprimatur of the U.N.’s 193 member states, the high commissioner cannot be dismissed as a Western shill. With many governments growing more impervious to traditional human rights critics, that credibility is a unique and essential asset. Whereas the U.N.’s secretary general is obliged to work with every member state, the high commissioner can afford to make enemies — and indeed must do so — when the truth demands.
In his search for the bionic high commissioner, Ban Ki-moon was confined by the U.N.’s fair-but-fraught system of regional rotations for high-level posts. The system dictated that the next high commissioner must be Asian. In selecting the Hashemite Zeid (the U.N.’s definition of Asia includes the Middle East, save Israel), Ban passed over the civil society advocates like Pakistan’s sister act of renowned women’s rights champions Hina Jilani and Asma Jahangir, as well as former Human Rights Council President and Thai Amb. Sihasak Phuangketkeow.
Some critics worry that, as an Arab Muslim, Zeid will bring anti-Israel animus to h
is role. But the Obama administration, acutely sensitive to preventing Israel-bashing at the U.N., would have been consulted on the appointment, suggesting that administration officials think Zeid can be trusted not to plunge OHCHR into the Israel-Palestine conflict. Zeid has earned that trust through many years of close interaction with U.S. interlocutors from both parties, and the Congress. He is a firm fixture on the global diplomatic scene, having spent the last 14 years serving alternately as his country’s ambassador to the U.N., to the United States, and to the U.N. once again. Zeid has chaired the convention of States Parties to the International Criminal Court, and led a hard-hitting commission that addressed sexual abuses committed by U.N. peacekeepers serving in numerous conflict zones. Still young at 50, charismatic and a royal to boot, there’s no question Zeid will be received at the highest levels by governments worldwide.
Though he was educated — and has by now resided for the vast majority of his adult life — in the West, Zeid will still enjoy a level of clout in the Middle East that far exceeds that of any predecessor in his role, making his appointment timely in the face of deteriorating human rights conditions in Syria, Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere in the region. Still, there’s always some risk that an ambitious younger leader will pull punches when it came to criticizing powerful governments — angling for a bigger job down the road. But here the U.N.’s rotation system may come to the rescue: while Zeid was a candidate for secretary general back in 2006, now that a Korean is serving, the next time an Asian U.N. secretary general will be sworn in may not be until 2056, when Zeid will be 92 years old.
While his credibility and knowledge of the U.N. system and international relations are unassailable, there are two dimensions against which Zeid will need to prove himself. The first is in relinquishing the cool detachment of an ambassador in favor of the impassioned human rights advocacy that the new role demands. The job of the high commissioner is to be the uncompromising proponent of human rights concerns, leaving it mostly up to others to decide how these ought to be balanced against economic, political, and prudential considerations. A posture that is too nuanced, sophisticated, or balanced can detract from the stark passion and moral conviction necessary to force human rights to the foreground. That said, Zeid’s warmth and finesse have the potential to make the strongest human rights prescriptions go down more smoothly.
The second set of skills that are not obvious from Zeid’s resume are those required to build an OHCHR organization fit for the 21st century; no longer a 1950s car but a modern hybrid vehicle capable of keeping up with high-speed global deployments, but also of downshifting to nurture human rights capacity in some of the poorest and most dysfunctional countries in the world.
Much of OHCHR’s work is unglamorous. It doesn’t stand between warring parties or hammer out treaties that make new norms into international law. It sends in teams, sets up offices, and carries out human rights training, documentation, and institution-building in places like Cambodia, Guinea, Nepal, and Uganda. These are not luxury appointments, but the work holds the possibility to catalyze widespread and sustained improvement in human rights conditions all over the world. OHCHR can make a difference where others cannot. Many countries who shun NGO and foreign government interference will let in the U.N. Yet OHCHR has not been staffed or resourced to realize even a fraction of this potential. Zeid needs to surround himself with an A-team of senior staffers, develop a compelling plan that explains how OHCHR can help address the world’s most vexing and costly conflicts and crises, and go around the world — ideally beginning in the palaces of the Middle East — to raise the funds necessary to fulfill such an ambitious vision.
With a skyrocketing death toll in Syria, Egypt back in the thrall of a military dictator, and whack-a-mole crises from Thailand to South Sudan to Ukraine, Zeid will have his work cut out for him. Let’s hope he can bring his princely touch from the hallowed halls of U.N. meeting rooms to the dusty huts where victims of human rights abuses sit and wait for justice.