The Well Respected UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is Leaving Because His Job Has Become Impossible

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein is resigning his post next year. In a memo obtained by Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch, Zeid suggests that his blunt style of human rights advocacy simply cannot survive the Trump era.

“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.”

The position of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is unique in the UN system. He or she is appointed by the Secretary General in consultation with key UN member states, but is expected to be an independent advocate for human rights around the world. This often pits the High Commissioner against UN member states. (In the last week alone, the High Commissioner has condemned the Israeli Defense Forces for shooting a man in a wheelchair; condemned a road building project in Peru that threatens to displace indigenous peoples; and condemned Myanmar for blocking access to human rights investigators.)

In his time as High Commissioner, Zeid has not shied away from criticizing even the most powerful of UN member states, including the United States.  That itself is not unusual, says Keith Harper, who served as President Obama’s ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council. “Every high commissioner criticizes the US. They have taken us to task over things like the death penalty, or they sometimes times criticize us for the actions of our military abroad,” says Harper. “The the US position is generally: we are going to allow that criticism. We are going to disagree with you, but we are going to be open to your being an independent voice.”

The position of an independent High Commissioner for Human Rights was created in 1993. And since then, every single American president and administration has pursued a values-based foreign policy and included the promotion of human rights as an important aspect of US foreign policy. Or, at the very least previous US Presidents paid lip service to the ideal of defending human rights.

That was, until this current administration. Now, you have an outspoken UN High Commissioner for Human Rights butting up against a US President who has largely abandoned even the pre-text of promoting human rights at home and abroad — and has done so with his own kind of bluntness.

“Any self respecting High Commissioner would have to criticize certain aspects of US policies,” says Philippe Bollopion of Human Rights Watch. “What changes with Zeid is that he is facing an administration that is openly contemptuous of human rights norms.”

Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein is well regarded by the human rights community. He is a former UN peacekeeper who served in Balkans in the 1990s. He’s also a member of the Jordanian royal family and a longtime diplomat, serving at the UN and also as President of the International Criminal Court which he helped bring to life.

In September Zeid made headlines for comparing populist movements in Europe and the United States to ISIS; and insinuated that Donald Trump was a demagogue for enabling ethnic nationalism in the United States. He regularly criticized the US President for his refugee ban and travel ban targeting Muslims. Now, it seems Zeid was facing the prospect of either muting his criticism or leaving his job. He chose the latter.

That he faced this choice at all shows suggests that UN human rights system cannot function when the United States so blatantly abandons values-promotion in foreign policy. This does not bode well for the ideal of an empowered UN-backed independent global human rights watchdog defending vulnerable people around the world.