Thursday, May 10, 2018


UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein Discusses Defending Human Rights

Hostility to human rights is on the rise, according to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. On Wednesday, April 4, Zeid discussed the state of human rights in the world today in a talk at Yale Law School. While he said that contemporary politics have proven uniquely threatening to human rights, he also outlined strategies we can use to protect them.

As Zeid stressed, these dangers are not new. In fact, the most potent of these threats were identified by the drafters of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in its original preamble, later changed, which called “ignorance and contempt of human rights” some of “the principle causes of the sufferings of humanity.” Zeid argued that the critics who are leading an intellectual “assault on human rights” misunderstand the history of human rights by failing to recognize that the UDHR was not “some rhetorical flourish put together by idle lawyers” but, rather, the first time that human values and needs were enshrined in human rights treaties.

Zeid also reminded the audience that the UDHR’s drafters wanted to develop the modern human rights regime to prevent the atrocities they or their loved ones had experienced in the World Wars and the Holocaust––a history that he worried too few people today remember. He urged his audience to notice echoes of past atrocities in today’s divisions between major powers, the rise of chauvinistic nationalism and terrorist attacks, the unresolved and proliferating conflicts in places such as Syria and Myanmar, and the xenophobic and racist rhetoric of demagogues and populist leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban. Zeid concluded, “We’ve seen all of this before, but the memories are disappearing.”

“We principals at the UN sit there and try to find breakthroughs that could open up space for us to…reduce tensions and end violence,” said Zeid, “but we’re finding it increasingly difficult to do so.” According to Zeid, this paralysis is caused partly by the lack of moral leadership shown by world leaders. “When you spotlight egregious abuses, you hope that a sense of embarrassment will trigger a response,” he explained. However, he said, today’s leaders are so shameless about the abuses they perpetrate that it is hard to effect any change. 

“So what can we do?” Zeid asked the audience. He first emphasized the importance of defending international human rights law and international justice institutions such as the International Criminal Court, which, he argued, send the message that human rights abuses “eventually catch up [with you].”

But Zeid also advised framing human rights as more than just a legal discipline. To Zeid, the responsibility to defend human rights should be shared by everyone, not only scholars and advocates. And to accomplish that, he argued, the UN and human rights defenders must convince people that “defending the rights of others is the surest way to defend your own rights”—a philosophy that starkly contrasts with the ways that extremists prioritize their own people’s interests.

Yet Zeid worried that the public seldom feels a responsibility to stand up for human rights. Zeid told the story of Kevin-Prince Boateng, a German-born Ghanaian professional soccer player who became a UN Goodwill Ambassador after he walked off the field during a match, followed by his teammates, to protest racial slurs fans had hurled at him. But, as Boateng recently told Zeid, this demonstration of solidarity was unusual and did not put an end to racist comments; rather, he and other players experience just as much racism as ever, and the amount of money in professional leagues discourages players and clubs from taking a stand.

Zeid, who, as High Commissioner, has often criticized powerful members of the UN Security Council and other important international actors, told his audience, “We must speak up. It’s extremely difficult, but once you start, you can’t stop.” Zeid explained that he drew courage from victims of human rights abuses and human rights defenders; their readiness to risk their lives and the security of their families to speak out against their governments and stand up for their beliefs is inspiring.

Zeid also emphasized that it is not enough to call out human rights violators. “Those who feel no shame won’t be moved by anything but political pressure,” he said. He urged concerned people to convert activism into strategic campaigns to oust politicians who fail to uphold human rights.

Zeid suggested that that human rights have not yet sufficiently permeated the public consciousness. “Rights are almost like breathing,” he said. “We don’t think about how crucial it is to take our next breath until someone starts to strangle you.” For Zeid, the strangling has already begun with the global suppression of civil society and the erosion of fundamental freedoms. “We need to get people to realize that the hands are around their necks and they can react,” he said.

When asked why he has chosen not to run for a second term as High Commissioner, Zeid dismissed the idea that he would be approved, given his outspokenness. “The only way imaginable to be approved would be for me to make deep concessions,” said Zeid, adding that he was not prepared to do that.

Despite his awareness of the shortcomings of international diplomacy, Zeid finished his talk by encouraging the audience to choose careers in human rights. “You’re all talented, and you’re exceptionally lucky to be here,” he said. “You can do anything else but be a human rights defender. It won’t be easy, but I guarantee it will be the most meaningful part of your life.”