The Scandal of Ambassador Zeid

Why the new United Nations human rights advocate is the wrong man for the job.

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

On June 16, the 193 member states of the United Nations General Assembly unanimously approved Prince Zeid Raad Zeid al-Hussein of Jordan as the new High Commissioner for Human Rights, charged with spearheading the U.N.’s human rights activities.

The nomination of longtime career diplomat Ambassador Zeid (shown in the photo above at right) has been largely met with approval from major human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch’s executive director Kenneth Roth tweeted that Zeid had "a strong rights record." Suzanne Nossel, former director of Amnesty International USA and current executive director of PEN America, also wrote a mostly positive piece on Ambassador Zeid in Foreign Policy.

These positive reactions are based on Ambassador Zeid’s role in advancing the International Criminal Court and seeking to hold U.N. peacekeeping personnel accountable for sexual violence. Diplomats from Western democracies also highlight Zeid’s Muslim and Arab background combined with his progressive credentials as crucial for bridging the gap between the U.N.’s Western states and Asian (particularly Islamic) countries.

But there are grounds for concern about how Ambassador Zeid will treat what is arguably the most consequential human right: the right to freedom of expression. Jordan’s voting record on the highly divisive attempt to force U.N. states to criminalize the "defamation of religion" leaves a huge question mark about how aggressively Ambassador Zeid will defend free speech in the sphere of religion, where this right is constantly under attack at both the national and international level.

From 1999-2010, member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) successfully tabled resolutions on "combating defamation of religion" as part of their campaign to implement a global blasphemy ban under human rights law, in the Human Rights Council (known as the U.N. Commission on Human Rights until 2006) and the General Assembly. During both of Ambassador Zeid’s periods as Jordan’s ambassador to the U.N., Jordan voted in favor of these resolutions when they were introduced at the General Assembly. Both of the resolutions passed. The 2010 resolution commended "the recent steps taken by Member States to protect freedom of religion through the enactment or strengthening of domestic frameworks and legislation to prevent the vilification of religions and the negative stereotyping of religious groups" and urged the international community to follow suit.

Jordan’s voting record in the U.N. is consistent with the country’s domestic record on blasphemy. In 2006, two newspaper editors who reprinted cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad previously published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten were sentenced to two months of imprisonment. In 2011, Jordan initiated a trial in absentia against Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, the creator of the offending cartoon, as well as 19 Danish journalists and editors who had published the cartoon in various news outlets. In 2009, Jordanian poet Eslam Samhan was sentenced to imprisonment and a fine for blasphemy after having included Quranic verses in his poetry. It was developments such as these that the 2010 resolution on defamation of religion hailed and sought to enact at the international level, turning human rights into a weapon against religious dissent and nonconformism rather than principles protecting the freedom of conscience and pluralism.

In 2011, the United States and the OIC brokered a compromise, Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, that aims to protect individuals, rather than religions, from religious discrimination and intolerance, and to promote "open, constructive and respectful debate." While this uneasy truce stopped the parade of anti-defamation resolutions, it did not end efforts by OIC members to prosecute those deemed to have insulted Islam. Only in 2013, the ministers of justice of the League of Arab States approved an extremely wide-ranging draft blasphemy law that not only aims at criminalizing allegedly blasphemous utterances (including miming!) but also envisaged extraterritorial jurisdiction, meaning that someone deemed to have blasphemed in the United States or Europe would be liable to prosecution in Arab League member states. OIC member states like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt continue to aggressively enforce blasphemy and religious insult laws, often targeting members of vulnerable religious minorities or free thinkers straying from state-sanctioned orthodoxy (most of whom are Muslims). According to the 2013 Freedom of Thought Report, different forms of "blasphemy" are still a crime in 55 countries (including several European ones, only some of which enforce them). According to these laws, blasphemers can end up in prison in 39 of those countries; in six of them blasphemy qualifies as a capital offense.

While it is hardly surprising that Jordan voted along with the OIC block on defamation of religion, it is fair to ask if Ambassador Zeid agreed with his government’s disdain for the freedom of expression or was simply toeing the line determined in Amman. Either way, the ability to stand firm on human rights principles in the face of overwhelming pressure is the quality most essential for a successful High Commissioner. Ambassador Zeid’s record on freedom of expression suggests either too great a willingness to compromise on human rights principles or a lack of civil courage, neither of which would recommend him for the job. To dispel these fears and pre-empt any OIC attempts to reintroduce the concept of defamation (or guises thereof), Ambassador Zeid should move swiftly to declare in no uncertain terms that freedom of expression includes the right to criticize religion even when offensive to religious feelings. That would be in line with the efforts of his predecessor, Navi Pillay, as well as the U.N.’s Human Rights Committee and the U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and Freedom of Religion or Belief. Most importantly it would also be consistent with international human rights law. No other position should be acceptable for the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Jacob Mchangama is the executive director of Justitia, a Copenhagen based think tank focusing on human rights and the rule of law and the host and producer of the podcast Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech.