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U.N. Human Rights Chief to Leave, Citing ‘Appalling’ Climate for Advocacy

Zeid Ra'ad Hussein worries the global retreat from human rights makes his job untenable.

New High Commissioner of the United Nations (UN) for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein of Jordan, gestures after a press conference on October 16, 2014 in Geneva. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI        (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
New High Commissioner of the United Nations (UN) for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein of Jordan, gestures after a press conference on October 16, 2014 in Geneva. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

The United Nations’ top human rights advocate told his staff that he will not seek a second term, citing concern that his voice would be silenced in an age when the United States and other world powers are retreating from their historical commitment to human rights.

Zeid Ra’ad Hussein, a Jordanian prince and former ambassador who served as a U.N. political officer during the Bosnian war, announced his plan in an end-of-year email to employees of the Geneva-based human rights agency. His term ends in the summer of 2018.

“Next year will be the last of my mandate,” Zeid wrote Wednesday in the email, which was obtained by Foreign Policy. “After reflection, I have decided not to seek a second four-year term. To do so, in the current geopolitical context, might involve bending a knee in supplication; muting a statement of advocacy; lessening the independence and integrity of my voice — which is your voice.”

Zeid’s letter raised questions about the ability of the United Nations to play a role as a champion of human rights. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has displayed a reluctance to speak out on human rights abuses by powerful governments, preferring to work behind the scenes with the United States and other key powers to defuse conflicts, such as the nuclear standoff in North Korea, that could lead to conflict and large scale violence. And Guterres has previously urged Zeid to tone down his critiques of Trump, fearing it could risk losing U.S. support for the United Nations, according to diplomatic sources.

Guterres’s chief spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, told FP that “the High Commissioner has always enjoyed the support of the Secretary-General.” He said Zeid informed Guterres “last week of his intention not to seek another term.”

The letter presented a gloomy assessment of the state of human rights one year after U.S. President Donald Trump came to power on a platform that downgraded the importance of human rights in American foreign policy, and promoted the virtues of reintroducing torture as a tool to extract information from suspected terrorists and their families. Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, has argued that the promotion of values, like human rights, can sometimes be an “obstacle” to the pursuit of core economic and security interests.

Meanwhile, advocates see human rights in retreat from China to Europe, where European governments have reacted to fears of terrorism by imposed increasingly tough restrictions on migrants.

“The fact that he felt that he could not be re-appointed without compromising his voice reflects poorly on the state of world affairs and human rights at the U.N.,” said Philippe Bolopion, the deputy director for global advocacy at Human Rights Watch. “In a world where human rights champions are few and far between, the High Commissioner has been a rare example of moral clarity, principle and independence.”

Zeid has been particularly blunt in his criticism of Trump since the presidential campaign, when he lambasted him as “grossly irresponsible” for promoting a ban on Muslims. He has continued to criticize Trump throughout his presidency.

Zeid said he would devote his final months to promoting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the core document underpinning the U.N.’s role in championing human rights, which will celebrate its 70th anniversary in 2018.

“It has been an arduous year for many of us,” Zeid said. He said he views the 2018 campaign to promote the declaration of human rights as one of “mobilisation and defiance, pushing back the many trends across the world that seem to negate and deny the value of human rights.”

“There are many months ahead of us: months of struggle, perhaps, and even grief — because although the past year has been arduous for us, it has been appalling for many of the people we serve,” he wrote.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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