For four years, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has been taking governments across the world to task, exposing human rights violations and robustly advocating for the rights of victims. His appointment by the Secretary-General back in 2014 was a landmark: he became the first Asian, Muslim and Arab ever to hold the post.
Before that, Zeid had already enjoyed a long and distinguished career, both at the UN and as a Jordanian diplomat. He served his country in several capacities, notably as Ambassador to the United States, and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, with a stint as President of the Security Council in January 2014.
The United Nations News first published this interview with Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Husssein on 16 August, 2018 and here are excerpts:
UN News: When you compare the human rights landscape today to when you took over the UN human rights office back in 2014, what are the key differences that you see?
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein: When I took over, it coincided with the terrible videos put online by Daesh, or ISIS, which stoked a great deal of fear and horror. And we began to see a sort of a deepening of the crisis in Syria and in Iraq. And this then folded into two things:
One, a great determination to embark on counter-terrorism strategies, which we felt were, in part, excessive in certain respects. Every country has an obligation to defend its people, and the work of terrorism is odious and appalling and needs to be condemned and faced. But whenever there is excessive action, you don’t just turn one person against the State, you turn the whole family against the State. Ten or maybe more members could end up moving in the direction of the extremists.
And then, the migration debates, and the strengthening of the demagogues and those who made hay out of what was happening in Europe for political profit. As each year passed, we began to see a more intense pressure on the human rights agenda.
UN News: You have been very outspoken and you’ve called out governments and individual leaders around the world who have abused human rights. Do you see that as the most important role for the UN human rights chief?
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein: Yes. At the Human Rights High Commission, you’re part of the UN, but also part of the human rights movement and both are equally important. As I said on earlier occasions, governments are more than capable of defending themselves. It’s not my job to defend them. I have to defend civil society, vulnerable groups, the marginalised, the oppressed. Those are the people that we, in our office, need to represent. I always felt that that is the principle task: we provide technical assistance, we collect information, we go public on it. But in overall terms, the central duty for us is to defend the rights of those most marginalised and those that need it.
UN News: what if you come under pressure to stay silent?
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein: Well, the interesting thing is that the pressure on this particular job doesn’t really come very much from the governments. They all attack the office because we criticise all of them, but we also point to areas where there is improvement, and I sometimes will praise the government for doing the right thing.
The real pressure on this job comes from the victims and those who suffer and expect a great deal from us. That’s the pressure that I think matters most in terms of the need to do the right thing.
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