Report

2018 Career Diplomat of the Year Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein: Read the Transcript

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein serves as the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.

Hussein

Good evening to you all. I must confess I was astounded as well as delighted to receive an award for diplomacy. Over the past few years, I have been attacked and trolled in various ways, but never have I been described as being diplomatic. Still, diplomacy properly defined is the peaceful arrangement of relations between states.

This does hit home.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is based on two core premises. One: every human being has inherent dignity, and all of us have equal and inalienable rights. Recognition of those rights, and I quote the first line of the preamble, is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.

Four years as the U.N. high commissioner for human rights has brought me many luminous encounters with women and men of immense dignity and principle, a number of desperately important life-saving struggles, much shocking and painful information, and some lessons, profound lessons which may take many years to fully assimilate. I hope to share a few of them with you tonight.

But first I want to circle back, as I have constantly done and found myself doing throughout my mandate, to the Universal Declaration and to the context in which it was drafted.

Forgive me, but I am a historian by training. This is truly where the story begins. It was at time of slaughter and terrible suffering, with broken economies and nations emerging from the ashes of two world wars, an immense genocide, atomic destruction, and the Great Depression. Finding solutions that could ensure global and national peace was a matter of the starkest kind of survival; committing to the U.N. charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was desperately important. They were not philosophical goals. This was life and death.

There will be, to use the refrain, no peace without justice. There will be no durable development without the promotion of broad social progress and better standards of life for all, and larger freedom. The men and women who survived the two world wars understood this, utterly. It was in their bones.

Leaders of states understood it and knew they must draft and hold to international laws which would ensure collective action within and peaceful relationships within and between states.

Treaty after treaty, they built a body of laws and covenants and committed to implementing them. And there was, there is, great cynicism about the global order they constructed, never fully global, never fully orderly.

But although it may have been partial, the progress they ensured was immense. That generation is quickly disappearing and with them the memory of the lessons that were so painfully clear to them.

The world, instead of advancing towards greater freedom, justice, and peace, is going backwards, to a landscape of increasingly strident zero-sum nationalism, where the jealously guarded short-term interests of individual leaders supplant and destroy efforts to find common solutions.

Backwards to an era of contempt for the rights of people who have been forced to flee or leave their homes because the threats they face are more dangerous even than the perils of their voyage.

Backwards to a time of proxy wars at the knife edge of sparking regional and global conflicts.

A time when military operations could deliberately target civilians and civilian sites such as hospitals.

A time when chemicals were openly used for military purposes and against innocent families.

Backwards to an era where racists and xenophobes deliberately inflame hatred and discrimination among the public while carefully cloaking themselves in the guise of democracy and the rule of law.

Backwards to an era when women were not permitted to control their own choices and their own bodies.

Backwards to an era where criticism was criminalized and human rights activism brought jail or worse.

This is the way wars are made. With the smarm of belligerence and the smirk of dehumanization. With the incremental erosion of old and seemingly wearisome checks.

The path to violence is made up of the unreckoned consequences of banal, incidental brutality seeping into the political landscape.

It is shaped by leadership that is both thuggish and infantile, petulant, cultivating grievances to reap votes and sowing humiliation, oppression, and hatred, and disregard for the greater common good.

Here is one lesson: Intolerance is an insatiable machine. Its wheels, once they begin to function at a certain amplitude, become uncontrollable. Grinding deeper, more crudely, and more widely.

First, one group of people is singled out for hatred, then more and more, as the machine for exclusion accelerates into crimes, and civil and international warfare, feeding always on its own rage, a growing frenzy of grievance and blaming.

As that tension begins to peak, no obvious mechanism exists that is capable of decompressing and controlling its intensity, because the machine functions on an emotional level that has very little contact with reason.

Release may only come after tremendous violence. This, in the human rights community, is something we have witnessed time and again.

We are at a pivotal moment in history now as contempt for human rights spreads. Xenophobes and racists have emerged from the shadows. Backlash is growing against advances made in women’s rights, Ireland notwithstanding, and many others. The space for civic activism is shrinking. The legitimacy of human rights principles is attacked. And the practice of human rights norms is in retreat.

What we are destroying is quite simply the structures that ensure our safety. The destruction of Syria is a murderous parable written in blood, which brings home yet again the horrific spiraling of incremental human rights violations into absolute destruction. The organized campaigns of violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar, which was Southeast Asia’s fastest-growing economy in 2016 yet again reminds us that economic growth will never maintain peace and security in the face of biting discrimination. In 2017, only last year, we once again saw the specter of possible genocide, and once again we did very little to stop it from happening.

In a sentence, what is the one core lesson brought home to me by the extraordinary privilege, crushing mandate as High Commissioner, is that in every circumstance the safety of humanity will only be secured through vision, energy, and generosity of spirit. Through activism, through the struggle of greater freedom, equality, and through justice. I thank you so much for your attention.

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