Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has reached the end of his tether— and now he’s speaking out
Published in August 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Hague, September 2016. The speech from the UN high commissioner for human rights was not expected to ruffle feathers. A mild appeal to our better angels and then back to the canapés—traditionally, as one UN speechwriter puts it, “we don’t use adjectives, we don’t name names.”
But instead of platitudes, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called out a parade of “xenophobes, populists and racists”: Wilders, Farage, Orbán, Le Pen, Trump and—in the same breath—Islamic State (IS). He shook with rage. The room was stunned into silence, then burst into a standing ovation. One ambassador present calls it “a moment of pure authenticity, emotion and reason.” A friend calls it Zeid’s “quantum leap.” But this was not simply a frustrated UN chief shooting from the hip. “He knew exactly what he was doing,” says his wife, Sarah.
There is an air of battered decency to the UN’s top official on human rights. Partly jet lag and the debilitating wade through undrained swamps of bureaucratic treacle. Partly bearing witness to the worst of humanity. As a junior UN official in Bosnia, he was profoundly marked by the sight of the skull of a child as a trophy on a warlord’s car. In a recent statement on Myanmar, he asked: “What kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk. And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by security forces who should be protecting her?”
But the weariness is also something deeper. This is a man watching his worldview come under relentless assault. Zeid was a global citizen before the idea went in and then out of fashion. His grandmother was the Turkish painter Fahrelnissa Zeid, his mother Swedish and his Iraqi father is now Lord Chamberlain of Jordan. He was also an outsider before he became an insider. An Arab who took up rugby to survive his English private school. A Hashemite prince who struggled through military service and grew a beard to appear less European in the Royal court.
All this makes Zeid hard to label. “To the intolerant, I’m a sort of global nightmare, elected by all governments, yet critic of almost all. A Muslim, who is—confusingly to racists—white skinned.”
As the forces of extremism have grown stronger, Zeid’s rhetoric has matched it. Trump is guilty of “state-sponsored child abuse.” IS are creating a “harsh, mean-spirited, house of blood,” while the response from Arab regimes is “trying to put a fire out with gasoline.” The Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte “needs a psychiatrist.” The five permanent Security Council members “must answer to the victims” for the persistent use of the veto. Zeid has jettisoned quiet diplomacy.
But just as he has found his voice, Zeid is about to lose his platform. His four-year term finishes on the last day of August. Most UN chiefs put themselves forward for a second term, but Zeid saw the writing on the wall. “To be re-elected in my job would be to fail,” because it would mean a series of punches pulled with member states. Now he is leaving, the last of the few global leaders willing to speak out about human rights abuses, what does that mean for the state of the world?
When Zeid became the UN high commissioner for human rights in 2014, no-one expected him to become a warrior, campaigner, target, hero. Activists were aghast that a Jordanian prince had been appointed to take on the world’s elites. Jordan has historically been more known for torture than democracy, and despite reforms, a recent Human Rights Watch report found “restrictions on free expression, free assembly, and women’s rights.”
Was this really the right figurehead for equality and human rights? The world’s powers saw a UN insider who would tread softly. His diplomatic career—ambassador to the UN by 36 and to the US at 43—was based on discretion, charm and tact.
So where did it all go right? Perhaps Zeid’s metamorphosis should not have been a surprise. In his interview for the human rights role, he was adamant that Arab governments should be held to the same standards as everyone else. As ambassador to the UN, he was a vocal part of the “Small five,” the Lilliputians taking on the big powers over reform. He led a quixotic boycott over the president of the General Assembly’s refusal to allow the “Mothers of Srebrenica” to speak. His first act as UN high commissioner was to break convention and refuse to show ambassadors his statements in advance. A harrumph of Excellencies marched into Zeid’s new office to complain. He listened politely, and then did it all again. One contemporary envoy recalls this as “the moment we put him in the damage limitation category.” A current UN ambassador notes, disapprovingly, “a tendency to poke the hornets nest.”
There is an air of mischief to Zeid, which Sarah, a Texas-born Anglo-American, encourages. A fellow insurgent, she is as comfortable in the detail of Congolese girls’ education policy as being a princess or hanging out with the Clooneys. In New York, they slip away from the diplomatic speed dating of the Four Seasons to an Irish bar, “somewhere we won’t meet anyone.” At home in Harlem, Zeid swaps the diplomat’s suit for hipster trainers. “The one place his beard is fashionable,” Sarah smiles. They joke that he may set himself up there with a kebab van once his time as the world’s conscience ends.
Valerie Amos, recently UN humanitarian chief, watched his evolution in the role. “He is clever, courageous, outspoken. He has great integrity, and is not afraid to be unpopular. Insiders have too often mistaken his lack of cynicism for political naivety.” One former prime minister describes him as “a quiet rebel.”
The rebel now had a cause, and the battles became less quiet. When his predecessor left, the office gave her a T-shirt with the worst names she had been called by dictators and despots. For Zeid, the language is less printable. Duterte called him the “son of a whore,” whose hair was thinning because he had no brain. The North Koreans labelled him a “plot-breeding scandal-mongerer.” Venezuela branded his time in office “a resounding failure.” China recently called his investigations “disgraceful” and voted to prevent him even speaking at the Security Council. One Russian ambassador dismisses him as “provocative, kamikaze and unhinged.”
Zeid laughs that “the list of places where we can holiday is getting shorter.” But his friends say the isolation and abuse hurt him more deeply than he lets on. He was particularly criticised for suspending without leave an official who had passed information on abuses by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic directly to France rather than to the UN.
Perhaps most upsetting is the response among Arab leaders. This is the most senior Arab in the UN system since Boutros Boutros-Ghali was secretary general. But he has been an unrelenting critic of Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and others, causing embarrassment to the Jordanian leadership. Reportedly he will need to wait several years before he is welcomed back to Amman, where there is frustration that he did not take a more subtle approach to a region in an existential struggle with Islamist extremism. Zeid looks pained in response, but dodges. “No one takes this job to win a popularity contest.”
The speeches may grab attention. But NGOs give Zeid more credit for the less visible work, especially on Colombia, Ethiopia and Uzbekistan. Denied access by several governments, he established a system of “remote monitoring.” This allowed the UN to capture abuses in Bangladesh, Turkey and Myanmar, the last of which Zeid called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
This stubborn effort to shine light into dark corners has earned praise even from persistent critics of the UN human rights team, such as South Africa. Their ambassador in Geneva says that no UN leader has seen such relentless pressure, and admits that “he rose to the challenge.”
Above all, it is confronting what he calls “aggressive, macho, chauvinistic nationalism” that puts fire in Zeid’s belly. He is angry with “clever cheats,” the demagogues and authoritarians weaponising intolerance and selling the snake oil of difference as a panacea for globalisation. “If we have learned anything from history, it is that scrambling only for ourselves, our ideology, or for our own kind will scramble it all—eventually, sometimes horrifyingly so—for everyone.”
Close friends point to his preoccupation with the Holocaust, unusual for an Arab prince. His hero is Ben Ferencz, the 99-year-old Nuremberg prosecutor. Zeid describes his “moment of epiphany” as a 1994 flight over Germany. Below them lay the sunlit square of Weimar, the “home of the German enlightenment.”
And then, through the cloud, the remains of Buchenwald. “Remember that in 1933 the Holocaust was unthinkable. Children need to learn the evil that bigotry and chauvinism can produce.” In setting up criminal courts or drafting speeches, he returns repeatedly to the Nazi era. “The fear of a repeat is what drives him,” says one adviser.
So what of the international system that rose out of the ashes of that Holocaust? Zeid sees humankind’s story as one of gradual evolution of reason over craziness, expertise over instinct, community over tyranny, and honesty over lies. Albeit with bad decades and sometimes centuries, we are work in progress.
But as he stood up to speak in 2016, he knew that it was the end of the chapter that started in 1989, or maybe even 1789. An age of austerity, migration and massive technological change was bringing the mix of immigration, insecurity and inequality that fuels extremism. Meanwhile in Syria, Russia bombed civilians to save them from terror and “a medical doctor presides over gas attacks and torture.”
In response, Zeid fears that the UN—imperfect but the best idea yet for global governance—is paralysed. The gamekeepers of the global order have turned into the poachers. “Do we still have an international community? The UN was exhaled by a world devastated by two savage wars.
Yet for some in power, there are alternatives to working together. They believe that only dreamers and fools think in terms of ‘we the people,’ or in we ‘nations united together,’ or equal rights. They see the UN as outdated, laughable nonsense—bureaucrats and gilded elites.”
Zeid is bruised and exhausted by “soporific international complacency.” He despairs at how fast we have banalised evil. “Today oppression is again fashionable. Fundamental freedoms are in retreat. Shame is also in retreat. Xenophobes and racists are casting off any sense of embarrassment.”
Yet when Zeid, who carries the UN charter in his jacket pocket, spoke out against Trump on migration, he was urged to tone it down. “Maybe it is cathartic,” mutters one senior New York figure, “but it is not strategic. The secretary general wishes he would pick his battles.”
And what of the fragile human rights machinery that Zeid represents? His HQ in Geneva is suitably grand, but—in the words of a former Russian ambassador—“all fur coat and no knickers.” It is overstretched and under-resourced. “We cost less than the Swiss spend each year on chocolate,” Zeid sighs. Member states were chiselling its money and muscle long before Trump started making isolationism great again.
Yet the organisation’s driving purpose remains ambitious. Like Zeid himself, it was shaped by the devastating conflict in the Balkans, a product of one more of those “never again” moments. In the toughest moments, he drew strength from the victims he met. The rape survivors in Bukavu, or the women in El Salvador jailed for 40 years for alleged abortions.
“I’m deeply conscious of how the UN has failed in the past. That’s why I prefer to err on the side of speaking out, and why I’m so fearful of the consequence in human lives if we fail. International law is a good barricade on which to fall.”
Zeid hopes the next high commissioner will get more support. Former Chilean prime minister Michelle Bachelet is the frontrunner, and would carry the baton with courage—a survivor of torture herself, who has seen a country slide into dictatorship and terror.
But his successor will face the same obstacles. He cites Primo Levi: “Monsters exist, but more dangerous are the functionaries ready to act without asking questions.” Everyone likes to think atrocities are done only by the other side.
Zeid’s successor will also have to contend with new battles on liberty and security. Despite what one adviser calls “his obsession with words,” he has never been a natural adopter of social media: his Twitter followers are not yet 1,000. “I am completely analogue,” he confesses.
Yet his final period in office has been increasingly focused on the arguments over how to apply the rule of law to the internet in a way that preserves our basic rights. He talks about the contrasts between his recent visits to Silicon Valley and Libya, “two alternative visions of our future.” He muses about the algorithms needed to help social media become more ethical. He worries about how to apply the lessons of history to artificial intelligence.
But first we face a more fundamental struggle. Zeid quotes Rudyard Kipling. “The burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the Fire.”
The path to dictatorship is not complicated. After economic downturns, nations turn inwards when they should look outwards. The aspiring tyrant blames elites, minorities and opponents. He promises greatness, bread and circuses. He intimidates independent media and builds a personality cult. And he systematically removes checks and balances, undermines institutions.
At the recent G7 Summit, the US president removed communiqué language on the international rules-based order. Shortly after, the US quit the Human Rights Council. Zeid sees danger. “Human rights violations are the sharp zig-zag lines of a seismograph flashing out warnings of a coming earthquake. They are shuddering faster and higher. This resurgent malice, irresponsibility and eye-watering stupidity are like steam at high pressure being fed into the closed chamber of world events.”
The temptation is to build walls and retreat, but “walls tormented previous generations and have never yielded any sustainable solution to any problem. Barriers of suspicion are rising, snaking through and between our societies—and they are killers.”
Meanwhile, Zeid wonders if he might be more effective as an insurgent outside the system than a creature of it. The principles were always a more important part of him than the “prince.” “My team are the ones with the real courage, long before I arrived, and long after I’ve drifted back into obscurity.” He looks forward to being able to take part in dissent, citing his daughter skipping school to demonstrate, and asking him how long he will remain a “grey bureaucrat.”
But he leaves with a heavy heart. “Too often, the UN has had nothing but words, resolutions, statements, process. Sometimes I wonder, what’s the point?”
Maybe political corrosion jolts more people to defend the progress so many have taken for granted. Maybe the most influential generation in history, empowered by information and networks we cannot yet imagine, summons up fresh will to restrain the new emperors, from tech giants to tyrants, just as previous generations did to the old ones. Maybe it was not Zeid who changed in 2016, but the world around him. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” wrote Yeats.
Zeid did manage to articulate a passionate intensity for moderation and coexistence. But the painfully won advances of the 20th century are now in peril. The world will discover whether the international scaffolding created to contain humanity’s worst instincts is being tested to destruction. These moments come along very rarely, and we have not faced them without the US in the modern era.
But at the end of August a besieged global citizen will pack up his Holocaust books and half-finished speeches, take a last look over the tranquillity of Lake Geneva and walk quietly out on to a street named after a very different US president, Woodrow Wilson.
In the year of the 70th anniversary of the International Declaration of Human Rights, one has to wonder, is this how the idealism of 1948 ends? The retirement of a diplomat in a world of fake news and 3am tweets. Where the truth is traduced, the vulnerable are scapegoated and the rules to contain our worst instincts are ripped apart. And somewhere a child’s skull sits on a dashboard.