Prince Zeid Raad al-Hussein has emerged as the Middle East's most prominent defender of human rights — both in the region of his birth, and the United States.
- By Kim GhattasKim Ghattas is a BBC correspondent covering international affairs and a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She is the author of The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power. Follow her on Twitter: @BBCKimGhattas.
If ever there were a sign that the world is upside down, it is that a Muslim prince from an Arab royal family is now one of the leading voices defending human rights on the global stage. At a time when the issue seems to be taking a back seat everywhere, Prince Zeid Raad al-Hussein of Jordan, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, has excoriated Western politicians for their xenophobia and requested an investigation into allegations of torture in Bahrain — even as the United States announced it is lifting human rights restrictions on arm sales to the kingdom.
Before the U.S. election, Zeid stood in front of the U.N. General Assembly in September and decried “race-baiting bigots who seek to gain, or retain, power by wielding prejudice and deceit at the expense of those most vulnerable.”
He explicitly called out Geert Wilders and Donald Trump in another speech, decrying Wilders’s “lies and half-truths, manipulations, and peddling of fear.” He added that his own personal background must be a nightmare for xenophobes everywhere, as a “Muslim, who is, confusingly to racists, also white-skinned; whose mother is European and father, Arab.” And since Trump’s ascension to the White House, Zeid has not shied way from criticizing him, calling the new administration’s travel ban “mean-spirited” and illegal under human rights law. In fact, he was the only prominent Arab voice on the world stage denouncing the ban and speaking out about the impact on Arab communities in the United States while Arab governments stayed mum.
Zeid, a former U.N. peacekeeper in the Balkans and Jordanian ambassador to Washington and an expert of international justice who played a central role in the establishment of the International Criminal Court, is now regularly taking on the populists and demagogues who increasingly dominate the world stage. At the same time, he has blasted several of the most powerful regimes in the Arab world for their human rights abuses — and has been criticized in the region for airing its dirty laundry.
Don’t get me wrong: Plenty of Arabs have fought and died for human rights in the region’s history. And Western countries, especially the United States, have far from a pristine record when it comes to human rights. If you live in the Arab world or Latin America, on the receiving end of American foreign policy, you look at Trump’s embrace and praise of strongmen and autocrats, and you probably feel that at least his words match U.S. actions.
But when big powers throw the defense of values out the window, and stop even paying lip service to it, it emboldens countries with questionable human rights records to stamp out dissent without fear of international consequences. It even raises concerns about accountability and rule of law within the West. At the Conservative Party conference in October, British Prime Minister Theresa May attacked “activist left-wing human rights lawyers” who “harangue and harass the bravest of the brave the men and women of our armed forces.”
Speaking to me over the phone recently from Geneva, Zeid remains deeply worried about what he sees unfolding in the United States and on the world stage. He has yet to meet anyone from the Trump administration, and while he holds out some hope that the administration will recognize the importance of defending human rights, it’s dwindling fast. Most recently, Trump invited President Rodrigo Duterte, the strongman in the Philippines, who has been accused of ordering extrajudicial killings, to the White House after what the administration termed a “very friendly conversation.”
“No U.S. administration since 1946 has ever spurned the human rights agenda,” he told me. “Let’s hope this is not the first administration to do so.”
Although he admits that the current international order is not perfect, he reproaches those who want to tear it down for not thinking through what would replace it.
“When these institutions start to crumble, then the [international] laws go with them, and where does it stop?” he wondered.
The Trump administration is reportedly seeking to cut $1 billion in funding for U.N. peacekeeping and several hundred million dollars for other U.N. agencies like UNICEF and the U.N. Development Programme. It also just ended funding for the U.N. Population Fund. The impulse of defunding U.N. bodies ignores the leverage gained inside the international organization by being its largest funder. This is not a new debate. Sen. Jesse Helms was a fierce critic of the United Nations and led the effort to cap U.S. contributions to its budget to 22 percent. The enacting of the Helms-Biden Act to reform the U.S.-U.N. relationship in 2001 meant that the United States released millions of dollars in back dues to the organization, which was hailed at the time as a way to strengthen the U.S. role at the U.N. Although working through the United Nations may seem at odds with an “America First” agenda, it can in fact help to advance America’s own goals on the world stage.
But for Zeid, the key message he wants to convey to Western leaders is that while the defense of human rights may seem like a fluffy endeavor of leftist activists, it is in fact the best antidote against extremism. He pointed to the March 22 attack in London, in which an Islamist extremist drove a car into pedestrians near Westminster Palace, killing five people and injuring 50. “No increases in defense budgets or the like would have had any effect on preventing someone like that,” Zeid said. Extremism and intolerance can be more successfully combated by the West and Arab world, he suggested, if their societies showed more consistent respect for everyone’s rights and concerns.
More crucially, Zeid made the case that there is a connection between a country’s respect for human rights and its political stability — a link that explains why and how dictatorships have come undone in the Middle East over the past several years. He cites the overreaction of the Syrian authorities in 2011 to children scribbling anti-government slogans in the southern city of Daraa as an example of how human rights abuses can trigger massive upheaval.
“Had the police not abused these children, then the demonstration wouldn’t have been so widespread and maybe we wouldn’t be where we are right now in Syria,” he said. “Human rights are very often a very sensitive seismograph for problems that can expand into a giant security issue.”
Zeid also worries about the West’s reaction — rather, overreaction — to terrorism. Security policies that limit civil liberties help fuel the very sort of radicalism that these countries are trying to prevent. But Western leaders and politicians tend to be flummoxed when Zeid brings up their human rights failings, he said — not least because the criticism is coming from an Arab.
“It’s a question I often receive: ‘Who on earth do you think you are, lecturing us?’ especially European countries or the U.S. or Canada, or whoever it may be, given my background,” Zeid said.
Whether it’s members of Congress or European parliamentarians, they all assume that when Zeid meets with them, it’s solely to discuss abuses in an African country or the Middle East — i.e., the “global south” — not the treatment of refugees in Europe or the abuse of force by American police officers.
“It’s amazing to see that they hadn’t even thought that the human rights agenda applies to them,” he said. “I think the relevance of the agenda is that it’s universal.”
Though the Trump administration has not yet criticized him, Zeid has faced the ire of the Russians, who lodged an official complaint with the U.N. secretary-general after his comments about xenophobic populists like Trump and Wilders in September 2016.
“Prince Zeid is overstepping his limits from time to time, and we’re unhappy about it,” said Russia’s then-U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin. “He criticized a number of heads of state, government. He should stick to his file, which is important enough.”
But the fiercest pushback Zeid has faced comes from his own region, the Arab world, where he and his office have called out various governments, from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, on the use of torture and restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Zeid said he doesn’t pull his punches, pointing out that in 2014 he pointedly criticized his own country for reinstating the death penalty. In 2015, Zeid also issued a report saying the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen may have committed human rights violations. The Jordanian foreign minister publicly rejected the report and defended the work of the coalition.
“I think they look at me in disbelief, believing in a very tribal sense that as an Arab, my job is not to disclose the dirty laundry of Arab governments,” he told me. “I don’t take instructions from any government. I don’t respond well to pressure from any government; neither do any of my staff.”
This has put a strain on his relationship with his home country of Jordan, which he represented both in Washington and at the U.N. (King Abdullah of Jordan is his cousin.) Zeid has spent a total of only three days back home on a private visit since he took up his post in 2014.
“It pains me, because it’s a country that I love and that I represented with pride for many years — not that it’s a country that has a prefect human rights record, clearly not, but it’s a country that I have an attachment for. But now the relationship is quite cool.”
Zeid is in his post until September 2018 and would have to be re-elected by the General Assembly, but he believes his outspokenness will mean there will be little support for him to remain in the job. While he still has his position, however, he hopes he can set an example and inspire other young activists and human rights lawyers in the Arab world, when they see that he not only raises the issue of human rights in the Arab world but also is the only voice defending the rights of Arab communities in Europe and the United States — Arab governments have been shamefully silent about the treatment of refugees in Europe and the U.S. travel ban and the impact it had on their citizens.
“I hope that in the future, you would have a whole generation of young Arab activists, lawyers taking part in this global movement” of fighting for human rights, he told me. “One legacy that I hope I can leave behind is that young people, young lawyers, young activists are inspired by the work our office does.”
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