The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is Just Doing His Job

Prince Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. As such, it is his job to call out human rights abuses and threats to human rights around the world. Just today, his office released a new report on repression in Venezuela; issued a statement on violence against a minority community in Myanmar; and highlighted a report on the shuttering of websites in Egypt.

So it should come as no surprise that Zeid would call out the leader of a United Nations member state who is creating a hostile environment for freedom of the press and whose recent actions could be reasonably interpreted as empowering racists.

It’s run of the mill stuff, for the High Commissioner, except for the fact that the leader in question is Donald Trump. From Reuters

“It’s really quite amazing when you think that freedom of the press, not only sort of a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution but very much something that the United States defended over the years is now itself under attack from the President,” the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said.

“It’s sort of a stunning turnaround. And ultimately the sequence is a dangerous one,” he told a news conference in Geneva.

Referring to the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN, he added: “To call these news organizations ’fake’ does tremendous damage and to refer to individual journalists in this way, I have to ask the question is this not an incitement for others to attack journalists?”

 He later spoke directly to the pardoning of Joe Arpaio

“Does the President support racial profiling, of Latinos in particular, does he support abuse of prisoners? Arpaio referred at one stage to the open-air prison that he set up as a concentration camp, he later recanted said it was a joke,” Zeid said. “Does the president support this? These actions have consequences.”

Zeid, comparing the leadership role of a U.S. president to a bus driver, said: ”I almost feel that the President is driving the bus of humanity and we’re careening down a mountain path.

“And in taking these measures, at least from a human rights perspective, it seems to be reckless driving.”

Zeid is a longtime figure around the United Nations. He is a former diplomat from Jordan and also former UN Peacekeeper who served in the Balkans. (He also happens to be related to the royal family of Jordan, hence the “Prince” honorific.)

He was appointed the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2014, and ever since has used his platform to shine a light on human rights abuses around the world and call out threats to political and civic freedoms. About a year ago, he identified the rising tide of populism and demagoguery in Europe and the United States as a potential threat to human rights. It was a remarkable speech in which he compared the racist populism of Dutch politician Geert Wilders to Donald Trump and ISIS.

And yet what Mr. Wilders shares in common with Mr. Trump, Mr. Orban, Mr. Zeman, Mr. Hofer, Mr. Fico, Madame Le Pen, Mr. Farage, he also shares with Da’esh.

All seek in varying degrees to recover a past, halcyon and so pure in form, where sunlit fields are settled by peoples united by ethnicity or religion – living peacefully in isolation, pilots of their fate, free of crime, foreign influence and war.  A past that most certainly, in reality, did not exist anywhere, ever.  Europe’s past, as we all know, was for centuries anything but that.

The proposition of recovering a supposedly perfect past is fiction; its merchants are cheats.  Clever cheats.

The position of High Commissioner for Human Rights is a unique one in the UN system. The High Commissioner serves a five year term, which can be renewed in a vote of the UN General Assembly. The challenge is that much of the High Commissioner’s work involves criticizing human rights abuses by members of the very members of the General Assembly that elect him. UN Member states are more willing to go along with these criticisms if they think they are fairly leveled, and that all countries are more or less equally scrutinized. It is therefore a political necessity that the High Commissioner call it like he see’s it– and when appropriate chastise even powerful member states.

Zeid’s predecessor, the South African jurist Navi Pillay, called out Obama administration on issues under her mandate, including over some of his positions on Guantanamo.

Criticizing the United States for actions it takes in contravention to its obligations under human rights law, or calling out American president’s over statements that could serve to undermine key principles of human rights, is part of the job of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It is both correct on principle — and also lends credibility to his statements and actions to confront human rights challenges elsewhere in the world.  So, expect more of this from Prince Zeid.