Agenda for the Future: Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Jun 11, 2015

TV Show


"Our planet is indivisible. There is no longer such a thing as a small, faraway country. No such thing as an acceptable level of discrimination, against any group." Don't miss this moving speech by UN High Commissioner Al Hussein, which covers all aspects of the universal principles of human rights, including the current refugee crisis.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for joining us.

Our speaker for this Public Affairs breakfast program is Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein. He will be speaking about his role as UN high commissioner and the human rights agenda for the future.

Having known Zeid for several years now, I have been watching his meteoric rise on the world stage. From his earliest days at the Jordanian Mission to the United Nations to his central role in establishing the International Criminal Court, to his posting as Jordan's ambassador to the United States, then back again to the UN, I can say that his recent appointment as the UN high commissioner for human rights was no surprise. I am enormously pleased to welcome this veteran multilateral diplomat to the Carnegie Council, a forum where the unifying theme of all of our work is tailored to the understanding of how moral imperatives such as human rights affect the struggle for power and peace among nations.

If you were to ask your neighbor "What are human rights?" it is likely that you would get many different answers. A simple response might be that it is something to which you are entitled by virtue of being human, based on respect for the individual and on the assumption that each person is a moral and rational being who deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Yet this hasn't always been the case.

When the United Nations was established following World War II, human rights were a guiding principle. However, it wasn't until 1948 that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights brought human rights into the realm of international law. This transforming event raised hopes that human rights and fundamental freedoms would quickly come to be more widely respected. Still, it wasn't until the aftermath of the Rwanda Genocide and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans that Member States of the United Nations made clear commitments to the principles of the UN Charter.

Even so, human rights continue to be disregarded and human rights violations escalated in many parts of the world, sometimes to a shocking degree, as today's headlines reveal. In looking for ways to address these injustices, many look back and ask, what are the responsibilities of the UN? What can the UN high commissioner for human rights do?

As the United Nations' principal human rights official, the high commissioner is the moral voice and authority for victims everywhere. Zeid personifies the task at hand. He is known for his dedication, his eloquence, and vision. Most importantly, he is someone who is not afraid to rally international support in order to hold perpetrators accountable.

In a world of increasing conflicts, whether in the Ukraine, the Middle East, Africa, or elsewhere, what is the human rights agenda for the future? What can the high commissioner do? For the answer, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to a true prince among men, our guest today, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein.


ladies and gentlemen, I want you to imagine, for a moment, a world without human rights. A space so brutal, violence is the only currency of human exchange. Fear is its fuel and its tranquilizer; a world where cruelty and deprivation mark all. Where conflict slides unopposed on rails of discrimination and hatred—with every person desperately scratching for benefit, for themselves alone; where every man, woman, and child struggles against arbitrary and capricious power; where even the rulers, in their tyranny, live in fear that they will be violently overturned. It is a wretched place: our nasty little hut of suffering.

Seventy years ago, from the smoke of a war more hideous and devastating than the colossal burn that ended in 1918, states built a system for peace—again. And from the pain of that most savage conflict, and the most detailed, mathematically planned genocide the world had ever seen, these states knew if countries and peoples could not live together, they would recycle the past behaviour again—but with nuclear weapons; no one could win, all would be annihilated. And so they built the United Nations, and drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It begins: "Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world . . . "

Recognition of the inherent dignity, and the inalienable and equal rights, of every human being. A respect for difference—and beyond it, a sense that whatever our differences, we are one, locked together on this planet where all of us must live and die. These are the foundations of freedom, equality, and justice. And freedom, equality, and justice are what hold the four letters: h-o-p-e, together. Is this inter-letter space now crumbling?


Some weeks ago, with my thoughts wrapped around the Mediterranean boat-people, I left my apartment in Geneva and took a drive. This crisis, along with that of the Rohingyas in Southeast Asia, has thrown the world into widespread dismay. People like us, but infinitely more desperate, whole families, share their suffering involuntarily with us, courtesy of our flat screens and iPads, as they drift over, or sink into, massive blue cemeteries. And so on a temperamental spring day, I drove to a lovely spot on the southern bank of Lake Geneva. My destination was the Hotel Royal in Évian-les-Bains. It was there, in July, 1938, that 31 nations met for a shameful discussion that has been virtually airbrushed from our memory.

The Évian Conference was convened by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in response to the massive looming refugee crisis triggered by Hitler's virulent anti-Semitism. Following the German annexation of Austria in March 1938—faced with violent assaults, the seizure of personal property, restrictions of their freedom, campaigns of racial insults, and in deep and very rational fear—Jews had begun to seek to leave Germany and Austria in large numbers. FDR felt that no country—certainly not his—would be able to solve this crisis alone. Only a collective solution, he believed, could meet the challenge.

Hitler, too, was hoping other countries would accept the Jews he was also trying to expel. In a speech in Koenigsberg four months before the Évian Conference was convened, he jeered, "I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has felt such deep sympathy for these criminals, will be generous enough to transform this pity into practical aid. As far as I am concerned, we are ready to place our luxury ships at the disposal of these countries for the transportation of these criminals."

Indeed, Hitler was already placing many of them forcibly on ships and sending them to various destinations in the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic.

And yet in Évian that July, although many delegations voiced eloquent dismay over the torment experienced by the Jews of Germany and Austria, those sentiments were rhetorical only. For the outcome of the meeting was a polite but blank denial of reality. Neither Europe, nor the United States, nor Australia would accept the refugees in any meaningful number.

In the verbatim record, two words were uttered over and over again: "density" and "saturation." The European countries were already beset with population "density" and had reached a point of "saturation"—in other words, there was simply no more room at the world's inns. It was an absurd thing to say, of course, in 1938, given the size of Europe's populations today. And it would be an equally ridiculous thing to say now.

The participants in Évian could not, of course, have perceived the future unfolding of the Holocaust, nor foreseen that Europe was being drawn into another devastating war, and yet the absence of conscience on the part of the delegations at Évian was breathtaking—even their oral interventions where kept short, with many participants lured by the outdoor activities awaiting them at the spa.

The Nazis must have revelled in the knowledge that their anti-Semitism found a faint—or not so faint—echo in the rest of Europe. They also came to realize that if expulsion was becoming increasingly difficult, slave labor and extermination eventually would for them be alternatives.

Ironically, many of those countries refusing to take in refugees were themselves, in due course, occupied and brutalized by the same Nazis, and yearned for the compassion they denied the Jews in July, 1938.

And so what of today? It is clear the Europe of 2015 is not the Europe of 1938. There are many European countries, led by Germany and now also France, who are prepared to consider very seriously, working along with the European Commission, not just the numbers of people that they should re-settle, but fixing on a broader, more comprehensive, treatment of the crisis. And we support them in their effort to do so, and to do more. It is tough, however, as other European countries doggedly reject any proposal requiring them to accept more migrants. And I worry; will this second category of countries ultimately set the trend? Look at the Syrian refugees: only a small number of countries around the world—led by Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan—have, since 2011, shown unfailing generosity; while most who could have helped have not done so, and remain in moral default.

Must we not ask ourselves, therefore, what will be our future, if we succumb to a thinness of mind, to a fanatic populism, where our fears are so easily stirred, our reasoning so easily subdued? If all states, in due course, mimic the most anti-immigrant of countries, and garrison their foreign policy with barbed wire, machine-gun nests, and naval vessels; impenetrable to the suffering of the wretched who flee war and persecution—what will be our common destination then? To what address will we humanity go?



The German novelist Günter Grass died six weeks ago. In his last interview before his death, he told the newspaper El Pais that today, "There is war everywhere. We run the risk of committing the same mistakes as before; without realizing it, we can slip into a world war."

Many of our most chronic crises—their human rights abuses and attendant suffering included—still remain unresolved, from the occupied Palestinian Territory, to the deeply-wounded Eastern communities of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Added to them in recent years, have come fresh disasters like Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Libya, and Yemen. And it is that accumulation of crises, at rates faster than our collective ability to resolve them—or even the earlier ones—which now, indeed, creates heightened cause for concern. The horrific abuse of human life, of the inalienable rights of people by takfiri (a Muslim who accuses another Muslim of apostasy) groups, such as Daesh [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/Syria, ISIS, ISIL], Boko Haram, and the Shabaab organizations, have staggered us all; dumbfounded us; and certainly require a response from states that is as effective as it is intelligent.

It can only be intelligent, however, if these states recognize the importance of distinguishing the state—which has a duty to uphold its human rights obligations—from those extremists who believe otherwise. Regrettably, we still see too many governments expect they can deliver their people from the threats of terrorism by way of security or military measures alone. They are severely mistaken.

In the short term, yes they can provide relief from terrorism and palpable insecurity. But as the months roll on, the reversal begins. For the policing state will squeeze the space for political dissent, and stifle civil society, thus assuring in time an inexhaustible supply of fuel to the violent extremists, in the form of frustration and grievance—because by stifling criticism the policing state encourages a drift into ever more dismal standards of public service delivery, including justice, conspicuous corruption, and deep inequalities to boot. Militarily too, unless supervised very carefully, aerial or ground operations will produce civilian casualties in numbers which destroy whatever moral arguments were put forth to justify the need for battle in the first place.

Unless we spin these security/military obsessions around, think laterally, and focus not just on countering the ideology, but also place international humanitarian law and human rights law squarely at the center of state response, it may very well be the case that these groups will continue, notwithstanding the occasional setbacks, to evolve and grow, menacingly—and their violence will remain extreme.

Could Günter Grass be right? If countries already plagued by terrorism and prone to violate the law themselves continue to unravel, and humanitarian crises worsen, numbers of migrants swell, borders are walled off, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is betrayed by an ever growing number of countries—are we in danger of losing it all?

Are we reaching a state of moral blankness? From Ukraine to the Central African Republic why do people hate the other with such ferocity; and why do they become so diabolical in their actions? How is it in this century that femicide continues to somehow exist? That people with albinism are hunted down for their body parts, and that the LGBTI [lesbian, gay, transgender, intersex] community remains persecuted, with so many still fearing for their lives across the world? Can we not smudge these sharp and poisonous boundaries?

In 1932, Albert Einstein wrote a remarkable letter to Sigmund Freud. It was just 14 years after the end of World War I, and as Europe struggled to its feet, a thuggish political group, the Nazi Party—which was destined to drive both men from their homelands—had just received more votes than any other political party in Germany. "Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?" Einstein wrote. "Is it possible to control man's mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness?"

Freud had developed a theory that in all human beings, latent, savage urges spring to life when forces that ordinarily would inhibit them cease to operate. His answer to Einstein is very long, and I would not agree with parts of it, but on this point I think it is worth quoting extensively:

"Under primitive conditions, it is superior force—brute violence, or violence backed by arms—that lords it everywhere," Freud writes. But, he says, "The superiority of one strong man can be overborne by an alliance of many weaklings, l'union fait la force (unity makes strength)." He continues, "For the transition from crude violence to the reign of law, a certain psychological condition must first obtain. . . . The union of the people must be permanent and well organized; it must enact rules to meet the risk of possible revolts; it must set up machinery insuring that its rules—the laws—are observed and that such acts of violence as the laws demand are duly carried out. This recognition of a community of interests engenders among the members of the group a sentiment of unity and fraternal solidarity which constitutes its real strength."

So the answer to Einstein's question—how to prevent war—is, Freud says, the rule of law, and the "ties of sentiment" that it helps to generate: the bonds of compassion and identification, or empathy.


What, exactly, is the rule of law? And how do we amplify its effect on empathy?

There are essentially two ways to look at the rule of law. One quite simply ignores the content of the laws: what matters is their formal structure. If laws are properly passed—enacted by a competent authority, public, non-retroactive, and so on—then one properly enforces them. This is a narrow, legalistic, and procedural vision: 
"rule by law" rather than rule of law. It ignores the fact that some laws may be unjust, indeed tyranny operates on that very basis.

Apartheid is an example of a situation that was governed by rules which were themselves unjust and illegal under international human rights law.

The second vision of rule of law goes much deeper. This rule of law involves looking at the ways in which laws ultimately contribute, or fail to contribute, to the legal protection of the human rights which stem from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the 10 great human rights treaties and conventions—themselves the distillation, the accumulated wisdom, drawn from the long pain of human experience, with roots in customary law and of course religious law.

Those universal human rights principles include the right to life, liberty, and security of person; the rejection of torture; freedom from unlawful or arbitrary arrest or detention, and the right to a fair trial. They include equality; the right to education, health, food, shelter, clothing, and social protection; the rejection of any form of discrimination, whether based on sex, race, ethnicity, color, belief, sexual orientation or any other factor; freedom of expression and association; and the right to privacy; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The question here is justice: Is the law just?

The quality of the law-making process is as important as the quality of the law. Rule of law requires transparency: there should be no secret rules. The views of those directly affected must be considered. And all persons, institutions, and entities—public and private, and including the state itself—must be accountable for any breaches of law. Only this vision of the rule of law prevents a law from being enacted to permit torture, or to deprive women or ethnic minorities of the right to vote. It is also this vision, which is grounded in equality, participation, transparency, accountability, and the collective good, which creates Freud's "ties of sentiment."

Let me return to the subject of hatred and violence, the ultimate expression of which is the calculated destruction of human life altogether. What often precedes the horrors will be a slow bubbling simmer of hatred—first verbal, then involving personal acts of physical intimidation and attacks, followed by discrimination seeping into all kinds of acts and laws, leading up in crescendo to a massive eruption of violence. But in the beginning there was speech.

It is axiomatic that the freedom of expression, including speech, is foundational to the maintenance of human dignity. It is on this freedom that democracy rests, because this freedom swings the gate wide open for individuals to argue for their enjoyment of all other rights. It is, essentially, the window into, and from which, the freedom of thought can have meaning. The "ties of sentiment" also demand freedom of expression. Because tyranny and, at the extreme, atrocity, will thrive through its absence—and so tyranny will always attempt to quash it. Although—and here's the rub—tyranny will often also pervert its use by others, abuse it, transform it expertly into an incitement to hatred, in order to impose its will. And its not just tyranny that will be tempted to do so, but also those filled by bigotry and chauvinism, and ultimately hatred.

Significantly, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) distinguishes between the right to the freedom of expression in Article 19, and the incitement to hatred in Article 20. The latter reads that: "Any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence shall be prohibited by law." The trick before us, therefore, the real challenge, is how to know the boundary, to recognize when one becomes the other.

Naturally, the freedom of expression requires wide berth and should be expansive—for you may be offended. And the right to freedom of expression, while it is to be enjoyed by everyone—equally—ideally, in practice, in a community that thinks, it would be exercised by a only few (the fringe), as the majority would be just too aware of the perils when many, most or all exercise it at its very limits—because the dangers of a breach into Article 20 increase dramatically with each successive jump in numbers. And yet, the threshold separating the two articles must also remain high, for the reasons I have already stated: Article 19 is still the best check against tyranny.

Given how important these two articles are, my office began to organize, starting in 2012, a number of expert meetings devoted to identifying the elements, which will help improve our understanding as to where the boundary between the two articles lies. They examined: the context; the intent; who the speaker/writer is; the form or content of the expression, and the extent of it; and the likelihood or imminence of violence. Formalized and known as "the Rabat Plan of Action," we are pleased to note that this initiative is now generating a great deal of interest, and we are working together with civil society, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa region on its further development and elaboration. In effect, we are working hard to solidify the foundations for Freud's "ties of sentiment."

But there are also much broader and more insidious forms of intolerance in societies—including democratic societies—that should not, and probably cannot, be dealt with by prohibitions and the application of criminal law. What do we do about stereotypes? About prejudice? About the insidious assumptions that form a shadow across so many interactions, shaping the view that humanity is divided into sharply etched groups.


Today, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, xenophobia, and anti-migrant feelings are once again rising—not only in Europe, though they certainly are rising in Europe—but also elsewhere, across much of the world. So can we correct it? Can people of different backgrounds, history and religion live together, and remain true to themselves, without pushing others away? More than half the world's population now lives in cities, and those cities are increasingly multicultural and multi-ethnic. In a world where we all encounter more people from other cultures, or who hold very different opinions, is it possible to create and uphold the bonds of empathy, so that we can live together in peace?

The answer is yes, and it lies in education, but not in formal education—but an education starting in primary schools shaped heavily by a basic understanding of human rights. Education in rights—the content, and the why, of human rights. The world's little human beings must know they too have rights, they must practice those rights, they must be critical in their mental orientation, and, above all, humane and kind. Children, and adults, can learn to uphold the dignity of others; to detect scapegoating; and to analyze the instinct that may lead us to blame others when life feels insecure.

Schools the world over themselves must also practice the very rights they aspire to teach: the environment itself must enable it.
For evil is not the exclusive property of moral monsters—the Hitlers, Pol Pots, Torquemadas, and Tamurlanes of our history. The power to choose between good and evil is within reach for all of us, as Origen says. Moral blankness—an indifference to the fate of others—is a choice. We may understand it, but we must resist it. When people retract into blankness about the fate of others, this may stem from fear. It may be a partial blankness—"our" group is important, "their" group is not fully equal, fully deserving of human rights. The need for the sense of belonging—we matter, but they do not—is a powerful tug. But the path of moral blankness and discrimination leads to hatred, and to the world of war. Unchecked, it threatens us all.

Schools are not the only place of learning; we learn new lessons throughout our lives. But schools can create, and radiate outwards, a culture of respect. Not only in ethics classes, but also throughout the school curriculum. I am increasingly surprised, for example, by the fact that the vast majority of schools across the world focus only on the narrow history and geography of their own countries—ignoring the fact that many students can claim their origins in other cultures. For greater respect, and better knowledge of the world, can we not introduce a curriculum of global history?

Such a subject—which is taught, currently, in a very few schools and universities—can develop a sense of the common patterns that emerge across all frontiers: the interconnections—cultural, economic, ecological, and demographic—among world societies; the ways in which peoples have grappled with, and released themselves from, tradition; and the deep history of migration, the sway of peoples that have irrigated every culture. Inevitably, these lessons anchor within us the deep conviction that all human beings are equal. A Jewish family fleeing Nazi persecution; a Tutsi family fleeing the cold glint of the knife in 1994; a woman, man or child fleeing war, persecution, or economic despair—all these people are fully deserving of human rights.

Our planet is indivisible. There is no longer such a thing as a small, faraway country. No such thing as an acceptable level of discrimination, against any group. But as the years take us further away from the memory of the terrible wars of the past century, their lessons may seem less urgent; our alertness fades; and we forget that intolerance, though it begins as a murmur, will arc into a movement that will blight human lives and obliterate peace.

We must build respect, and acceptance, and not just tolerance into our societies—tirelessly, beginning again and again, repairing constantly the rule of law and the bonds of empathy. Only in this way can every government, every society, and all of us, truly, and in very practical terms, embody the principles of our equal and universal human rights, and divert us from becoming a nasty little hut of suffering and keep us peaceful, keep us humane, on this little blue pearl we call earth, the home of all us humans.

With that, I would like to open the floor to questions.


QUESTION: Thank you. Pamela Falk from CBS News.

Your Highness, welcome, and thank you for your talk. You wrote a landmark study about 10 years ago about the need for speedy prosecutions and zero tolerance on sex abuse. I would like to ask you about the recent allegations of, needless to say, child sex abuse by French soldiers against young boys in the Central African Republic. It has been almost two years since the actual acts began. It has been eight months since your office knew about it. We have heard from your deputy high commissioner, comments by her. Why has it taken so long? Have any of the perpetrators been prosecuted? What do you think of the external review that is being proposed by the secretary-general? Thank you.

ZEID RA'AD AL HUSSEIN: Pamela, you have turned this lecture into a press conference here. I don't have my spokespeople with me, so I could get into real trouble.

I should, first of all, say—and I have said this before—that there is no monopoly on the reactions to human suffering. All of us were absolutely appalled by what it is that we read. This was a collection of testimonies drawn from children. All of us were stunned. I have been exposed to these sorts of stories, appalling as they are, for the last 12 years or thereabouts, 11 years. It still never fails for me to react with repulsion, of course, when I read them.

The question, which we have said before, was not that they were referred to the government in question, but in what nature they were referred. As was made plain by my office on a number of occasions, to send a document unredacted increases the dangers for the very children who were exposed to these allegations. In many countries it is a criminal offense to disclose the names of children, the victims of sexual abuse. Even to the judicial authorities you don't do this.

So it's not a question of what was transferred. It's a matter of how it was transferred. That is why we have an investigation ongoing. I welcome the secretary-general's broader investigation, because I think it is merited. It is very much a question as to why things took as long as they did. I certainly want to know myself. So I am fully supportive of the secretary-general's call for an external evaluation.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

After your excellent exposition, may we apply some of the principles to your own region of the Middle East? How is it that neighbors kill neighbors so easily? This is one of the great challenges. How do you deal with the Shiite-Sunni conflicts, the Saudis and the Iranians, ISIS/ISIL, whatever you want to call it, cutting off heads and destroying cultural treasures?

ZEID RA'AD AL HUSSEIN: The first one, the pathology of murder—why do people kill their neighbors?—is a question I have tried to answer on previous occasions in various lectures. It is almost too vast a subject to respond with a short response. Frankly, we don't really know why people do what it is they do. We have quite an advanced understanding, but I don't think it is complete. If it were, we would have been able to turn off the tap of violence years ago. We are trying through various mechanisms to stem and shave off from the most lethal edges the pernicious tendencies of humankind through institutions like the International Criminal Court, but this is still a work in progress.

Alas, as I said, there are many signs that the international system constructed after the end of the Second World War is laboring and really under attack. We must resolve to do everything we can to recognize it and reverse it, in a world where there is so much information about and yet there is a sort of paucity of thoughtfulness, careful consideration, a grand philosophy undergirding what it is that we are seeing and how we can change it. So we need to deepen our thinking, and not just think we can solve problems through endless summitry and ministerial meetings, conferences. It must be beyond that a little bit.

In terms of the conflicts, I tried to answer it in the context of my discussion this morning. Certainly the accumulation of crises hasn't enabled us to deal with them as effectively as we have wanted. I have said on a number of occasions that it's like the international community became an adept juggler. We could, over the course of time—certainly 10 years ago or less—we could cope with one financial crisis, two large political crises. Then last year this adept juggler juggling with three balls was given a fourth in the form of Ebola, in the form of Iraq, in the form of worsening conditions in Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic. We can barely cope with four, and we see other balls now being prepared. Can we cope with any more? We would just drop the whole lot.

That is what I tried to address in this lecture today.

QUESTION: Don Simmons.

The intensified refugee problems and the great numbers over the past 10 years or so have occurred during periods of terrible fighting—civil wars, ethnic, sectarian conflicts. To what extent could we hope for the refugee problems to be alleviated if, as, and when peace is brought to some of these warring areas, either by outside intervention or by the triumph of some parties over others, or even by exhaustion?

ZEID RA'AD AL HUSSEIN: You have to hope and expect that some would return voluntarily if the fighting came to an end and with time you were able to see enough security where people would decide to return home. But as has been said now on a number of occasions, the average stay of a refugee family outside the country of origin now is about 20 years. So many may not go.

Again, the question is, if we all decide that we don't want any of these people, what does the world look like then? What does the world look like? This is the concern that we see in certain parts—politicians weighing on populist tendencies, popular feeling, riding a wave based on anti-migrant rhetoric.

We have been there before. We have seen this before. You want to say to the victims of yesterday, how dare we do this again? Have we learned absolutely nothing? I think this is what worries us when we see these trends returning. It is so easy to stir popular discontent like this.

We have been, as the Human Rights Office, really quite sharp with those political parties, political leaders who push and front this particular policy. It's almost like there is a complete absence of understanding of 20th-century history. Perhaps with a closer look, one can see the perils of moving in this direction.

QUESTION: James Reinl.

Thank you so much for the speech today. My question is going to be along the theme of what you were talking about, but also specifically related to Daesh, the Islamic State. We are about one year now since they launched their blitzkrieg assault into northern Iraq. They are a group that obviously doesn't care about international legitimacy. They don't care about the Universal Declaration. They don't care what you say. They don't care what Günter Grass said.

My question is, do they embody a kind of failure of the global architecture for human rights, which in some way your office represents? Do you have anything in your toolkit that can tackle the group, or are they an ultimate example that the only way they can be defeated is through military confrontation, something which you have spoken against, in some ways?

ZEID RA'AD AL HUSSEIN: There is an obvious response. I think in 2004 and 2005, the mentor of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Daesh, Abu Masab al-Zarquawi, was battling away in Iraq. There were beheadings that were publicized, victims in orange jumpsuits. We had countless meetings in the UN Security Council about their actions. Almost with an unprecedented investment in money and in military force, eight, nine, ten years later, the group is still there, a takfiri group, more powerful than was ever the case eight years ago.

So clearly the bombing algorithm is not one that can work. It requires, as I suggested in the lecture, a much more sophisticated response and one where certainly the state cannot, itself, cut corners on its own obligations to human rights. If the state does that, if the state decides that somehow these situations are new, not taken into account by the law, which they are mistaken in believing, as Kofi Annan once said, they deliver to the extremists victories that the extremists would never themselves have hoped for.

If you reduce civil society in a country into a hollow shell for fear that they are the medium through which extremists spread their message, you actually do the extremists a favor, because they, too, want to get rid of civil society. They see it in the opposite form: that civil society, pushing for an open space for expression of dissent, for the ability to express dissent, is the greatest antidote to extremist tendencies.

So you have this amazing sort of twinning of effort by some of these security state structures and the extremists in crushing the very thing that would hold the country together in some semblance of peace in communities at sort of a grassroots level.

That is the first response.

The second one: Do they care? Don't forget, the Taliban embraced a takfiri ideology, again, about 10 years ago. Ten years ago, no one would talk to them. No one would speak to them. That has changed. An interesting thing is that the Taliban now has prohibited the use of certain weapons. They recognize that there is a level of human suffering which cannot be supported. So who knows where we will be in 10 years' time?

It's interesting. We had a discussion with a group of very seasoned UN mediators, and they were telling us that in Central America the only frame through which they could push the political discussions in Guatemala and El Salvador and Nicaragua was the human rights frame. They all could agree that there were certain boundaries beyond which you couldn't go in terms of human cruelty. If they could agree on that, if they could agree that there was a sort of normative human rights framework that all of us must uphold, then that was the starting point for the discussions that ensued, the political discussions.

So there is also some thinking that needs to be invested in that direction.

QUESTION: Lawrence Moss, Roosevelt House, Hunter College.

For a long time we could take some satisfaction in a narrative of progress in human rights—the transformation of Latin America away from brutal authoritarian regimes, Eastern Europe from communist regimes, hundreds of millions of people in Asia being lifted from poverty, better governance in Africa. The Arab Spring seemed at first to be part of that narrative. Of course, it is not now. Do you see a positive legacy for the Arab Spring? They say that to make an omelet, you have to break eggs, but it's hard to see an omelet being made anywhere, except perhaps in Tunisia. Will there be a positive legacy? People in many countries—Egypt, even Libya, which was to be a success for the responsibility to protect, and, most grotesquely, Syria—seem to be much worse off than before these popular protests began.

ZEID RA'AD AL HUSSEIN: Thank you, Lawrence. Last week, I spoke to the representatives of Member States in Geneva, and we presented our report for 2014, which basically chronicles all the good work that we are doing in so many countries. So there is a positive story to tell. The work is appreciated, I think, deeply by governments. But is it enough to forestall what seems to be humanity's cartwheeling into something very dangerous? I really don't have the answer to that.

On your second point, I was in Tunisia a few weeks ago and met with all the senior officials, starting with the president. It is clear that they have made huge advances. Tunisia today is not the Tunisia of pre-2011 or 2012. The Tunisia of today has a new constitution. There are new structures built to support the human rights agenda.

But it was clear to me, and it was made with some feeling with some feeling of emotion behind it, that Tunisia is not receiving the financial support it needs to receive. It requires budgetary support of a sizable amount. If it doesn't, the future will become a future where anxieties will grow. I think the international community, and especially now, in the context of this migration discussion in Europe, needs to invest heavily in a country like Tunisia. It's not without its own challenges and problems. Certainly they have human rights violations, which we raised as well. But clearly it stands in stark contrast to many countries that have fallen into the abyss. One hopes that with enough support behind the Tunisian example, yes indeed, there will be an example from the Arab Spring, the first example, which would stand out.

There was a very interesting point made to me the other day by a representative of a Tunisian NGO. It is a striking point, and it is an obvious point, astute, like all obvious points when they are first made. He said we place heavy emphasis on development. When you compare UNDP's [United Nationl Development Programme] budget to our own or the size and overall scale of ODA [official development assistance] on the part of the international community, by comparison, what is contributed to human rights, in the way that we are supported, is minute, very small.

This Tunisian representative said there are only two Arab countries that fulfilled their Millennium Development Goals, Tunisia and Egypt. In 2011, they were well on their way to fulfilling those goals. Yet it did not inhibit the people from taking to the street and voicing their discontent. There is a lesson there. People need to feel their dignity honored, their worth respected. I think whenever we look at whether it be development, peace, or security, it must all be done through a human rights-sensitive lens. It is the one pillar of the three-pillar system that is the UN that is severely underfunded. Only 3 percent of the UN's budget goes to human rights—3 percent. How can that be supported?

I made clear last year that the Swiss spend 10 times more on chocolate a year than we have as a budget. I know Swiss chocolate is very good, and I would support their industry. I do support it by my own consumption. But how can you properly square that? When you take the broader figures, the size of global GDP this year—I don't know if anyone has that figure—then you look at the investment into the human rights agenda around the world by comparison, it does raise some obvious questions.

QUESTION: Hi. Jim Traub, from

Zeid, in your talk you focused very much on Europe. Europe is, of course, the home of the most rights-regarding nations, and the ones who are most likely to listen to exhortations from people like you. I wonder if there are examples, either from your experience or that of any of your predecessors, where you can say non-rights-regarding countries, non-liberal democracies actually do respond to the kinds of exhortations that come from your office. Are there positive stories that demonstrate that those folks actually care, too?

ZEID RA'AD AL HUSSEIN: I had a discussion with Jim before the lecture, and I mentioned something along these lines. It is work which is fascinating for me. I have been eight months in this particular position. I am fortunate to have an extraordinary staff. I think anyone who ever studies human rights law in law school would want to work with the office that I have. We have many very distinguished lawyers and activists who have joined us.

It is amazing to see how we are listened to, to a certain extent. The normal operating calculus in the UN and in diplomatic life is that if you criticize a country openly, basically you lose access. There is no further communication. You lose your project. You lose your standing with them completely. But it's not exactly like that. It's something much more interesting than that that occurs.

I suppose that we are distinct from other parts of the UN for two reasons. One is that the Human Rights Office isn't only South-focused. When you look at the peace and security file or the development pillar, humanitarian, the activity is mainly in the global South, with support financially from the global North, whether it be peacekeeping, whether it be humanitarian response. With us, it's global. We will comment on laws, discriminatory or otherwise, actions of states everywhere, with no exception. We don't privilege and we don't discriminate or single out. There is broad comment.

Several years ago, there was no mention explicitly of countries when we would release our annual reports or when I would make speeches before the Human Rights Council—when my predecessors made them. This has changed over the last several years. We name and cite countries specifically. You would have thought that the more explicit we are, the less they are going to want to deal with us. It is the opposite that is the case. This year we cited more countries in my speech before the Human Rights Council, and we had the largest turnout of senior officials. I think second to the General Assembly, it is one of the largest turnouts. We had very substantial discussions with all delegations. These are not courtesy discussions or courtesy meetings.

There is something there. There is a recognition that every country can do better. Many countries will say, "We need help. Help us arrive at a point where we can sort out this particular problem."

I haven't answered your question, but I have tried to go around about it in a general sense.

QUESTION: I'm Krishen Mehta with the Aspen Institute.

Your own country, Jordan, has been a beacon of stability and hope in a very difficult region. It has made peace with Israel. It has accepted refugees from Iraq, from Syria. It has a resilient economy in spite of all these strains. I wonder what it is about that society that one can derive some lessons from that could be hopeful for the region. Are there some strains to that society that also could be problematic in the future unless they are addressed now, in this very difficult time when the Syrian crisis is continuing to evolve even further?

ZEID RA'AD AL HUSSEIN: It is not a question that I really would be comfortable answering. You really need to ask the Jordanian ambassador the question. I represent the United Nations. I don't privilege any country in my analysis. While I could discuss it privately, I wouldn't discuss it publicly.

There are things that I have said about Jordan in terms of its human rights conduct, the reintroduction of the death penalty, and so forth. It is in those contexts that I prefer to discuss these points.

But clearly when I mention the fact that—led by Lebanon, really, then Turkey, and including Jordan—there is a generosity of spirit in opening the borders to Syrians fleeing conflict that hasn't found an echo elsewhere; it is a source of deep dismay. Again, is it showing us that the world is becoming a more mean-spirited place, less humane?

I sat with one foreign minister who was prepared to use every sound but narrow legal argument in defense of their country's position on migration. I said to them, "It's not a matter of law. I'm sure you can furnish very sound legal points. It's a matter of whether it is humane. Do you want to be associated with something like that?"

That is, I think, the key point that we have to ask ourselves. What is happening to us?

I hope I addressed some of these points in the context of this morning's discussion. Thank you so much, everyone.

JOANNE MYERS: Even though you are here as the UN high commissioner, you talked about the Jordanian generosity of spirit, and that's what you have. Thank you so much.

You may also like

Migration. CREDIT: <a href="" target="_blank">Ariel Kaplan</a> (<a href="" target="_blank">CC</a>)

JUN 8, 2015 Article

Migrant Deaths Worldwide

There is no going back to a world in which migration can be prevented. The only solution to the global crisis of migrant deaths is ...

CREDIT: <a href="">United Nations Photo</a> (<a href="">CC</a>)

OCT 28, 2013 Article

The UN's Unprecedented Gamble in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Laurie Mincieli: The Forward Intervention Brigade represents an unprecedented use of the Security Council's Chapter VII peacekeeping mandate, and risks undermining peacekeeping's core tenets of ...

Image via <a href="">UNICEF</a>

JUL 7, 2014 Article

It's Time for the United States to Ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child

America is one of only two countries that has not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The other is Somalia. As ...

APR 23, 2008 Journal

Ethics & International Affairs Volume 22.1 (Spring 2008): Essays: On the Morality of Immigration [Full Text]

This essay makes a plea for the relevance of moral considerations in debates about immigration. It offers a standpoint that demonstrates why one should think ...

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation