Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein, the United Nations' high commissioner for human rights, joins Warren M. Hoge, senior advisor for external affairs at the International Peace Institute, to discuss the global state of human rights, work of the UN human rights council, and areas where the UN can improve its effectiveness in upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations was established in 1996 by Gillian and Theodore C. Sorensen to highlight the United Nations and offer a special occasion for its most distinguished and experienced leaders to speak to the Council on Foreign Relations membership.
HOGE: Well, good evening. I’m Warren Hoge, senior adviser at the International Peace Institute. And on behalf of the Council on Foreign Relations, I’m happy to welcome you to this meeting, which is the Council’s annual Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations.
The lecture was established in 1996 by Ted and Gillian Sorensen, and it showcases those intimately involved with the workings and issues of the United Nations and invites them to meet with Council members. I am particularly glad to be your presider tonight because I have been a friend and admirer of all three people we are honoring.
Ted Sorensen was someone I saw a great deal of here at the Council and other places around New York. And just Saturday night my wife and I went to a concert at Alice Tully Hall and had the poignant recollection of how the place was filled to capacity for a moving and inspirational celebration of Ted’s life weeks after his death five years ago last month. In the closing words of that service we were told that Ted’s spirit still, quote, “beckons us in our time to the adventure of building this universe as we want it.” And, quote, “Pursuing this glorious opportunity is the best way to keep alive the memory of Ted Sorensen.”
Gillian, who is here in the front row, has been a friend since our undergraduate days, but there have also been compelling professional reasons why I’ve kept up with her in the decade since then and I want to mention them briefly here before presenting our speaker.
A resourceful and imaginative advocate, Gillian has spent more than 30 years as one of the most persuasive, articulate, and fair-minded champions the United Nations has ever had. She served as New York City commissioner for the United Nations and the Consular Corps for Mayor Ed Koch, special adviser for public policy for Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, assistant secretary general for external relations for Secretary-General Koki Annan, and lastly, senior adviser for the United Nations Foundation.
Now, I’ve just referenced two lives of extended and dedicated public service, and that provides an easy segue to introducing our speaker. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein is an outstanding member of the U.N. community whose work and person I have followed during the past dozen years that I’ve been involved in that community.
You have his biography in your papers, and it tracks his rapid rise in the world of multilateral diplomacy from his first frontline involvement as a U.N. peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia, to his central role in establishing the International Criminal Court, to this postings as the Jordanian ambassador to the U.N. and then to the United States and then again to the U.N., to his now 15-month-old assignment at the U.N.’s principal human rights official.
In that short time, he has proved to be an eloquent moral voice and authority for victims and an outspoken scourge of victimizers, be they individuals, groups, or even member states of the United Nations. So please join me in welcoming to the stage the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. (Applause.)
AL HUSSEIN: Thank you, Warren, Gillian, colleagues, and, I’m pleased to say, so many friends.
This is a dark time, a time of great turmoil in the international—in the world of international relations. Paris bleeds. So too does Beirut and Aleppo and Sanaa, and countless other cities. And it seems that the defenses against chaos and bloodshed that states erected at the close of the Second World War, the laws they wrote and swore to abide by, the agreements and treaties they signed, are giving way to increasing the unilateral action bound by no principle or any foresight.
Across the world, the staff of my office and many other human rights defenders are reporting mounting atrocities. Much of the Middle East and North Africa is gripped in deadly conflict with constant, now almost routine, violations of the norms that should protect civilians and even proxy warfare with greater powers engaged in combat rather than in making peace. Most shocking of all is the world’s terrible failure to end the suffering of the people of Syria. There and elsewhere we face extremism of a nature and brutality that is sickening and yet which speaks to some fraction of a population that has been brutalized by generations of war.
I’m also deeply worried also—sorry, I’m also deeply worried—“also” doesn’t work very well. Another day. I’m also deeply worried about Palestine and Israel. The religious element of this latest spasm of violence could lead to immeasurably greater consequences. The crisis in Ukraine casts a long shadow across Europe. The breakdown of rule of law in several Latin American countries, with the rise of powerful criminal gangs, is profoundly disturbing.
I have been shocked by the events in South Sudan that have brought the small beginnings of a new nation to blood and famine, and appalled by continued resistance to the equality of women and girls in many parts of the world, an affront to every fundamental principle of the U.N. Charter.
The secretary-general has spoken of the silent crises: grinding poverty, hunger, inequality, and discrimination. And many countries around the world are failing to build political institutions, judicial systems, and economies that allow ordinary people to live with dignity. And many more of the institutions, systems, and economies that have been built are unfair, distorted by political capture and increasingly unrepresentative. We also see more and more states curtailing human rights under the profoundly erroneous impression that mass surveillance and repression of dissent would somehow defeat the threat posed by terrorism.
So when I was invited to speak here at the Council on Foreign Relations, it came as a solace. This institution has provoked insight on many issues of global governance and human rights. I am particularly pleased to be speaking in the context of the legacy of Ted Sorensen, who guided the speech in which JFK famously cried out: Let the word go forth from this time and place to friend and foe alike that the torch has been passed to a new generation unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of human rights—the slow undoing of human rights, those universal core values that bind together and uphold development, justice, the rule of law, and peace.
Today, states and non-state actors are deliberately and increasingly violating the most fundamental rules of international law, and they are doing so with impunity. As chaos rises, several states appear to be undergoing almost a process of nuclear fission, collapsing inwards and splintering into violently defensive communities. We face emergencies and yet our humanitarian operations go unfunded, virtually guaranteeing that this suffering will cascade into more and more countries and lives.
Our current context recalls the world situation of the turn of the last century, a time of simultaneous human progress and great destructive violence. We are the cusp of a tremendous opportunity for development with the 2030 agenda for sustainable development that promises to end poverty, leaving no one behind. And next month in Paris the world may yet come together to take powerful action against climate change. And there is still hope for a resolution of many of the crises I have outlined.
Today’s multiple migration movements to Europe, to Southeast Asia, and to the United States are symptoms of the despair that is generated by overwhelming human rights violations. In every case they were preceded by reports, recommendations, and warning alerts by my office. They are the living illustration that human rights violations in any country are the business of us all: indiscriminate warfare in Syria, oppression in Eritrea, persecution in Myanmar, children fleeing gang violence in Central America, young people driven out of Bangladesh by a lack of opportunities and a broken rule of law, families forced to move across the Sahel because of water scarcity and land degradation.
Our response to these movements of forced migration will take the measure of our will to overturn such violations. There should be a strong, deep, broad-based, and collective effort to address the overwhelming human rights violations at the root of these desperate movements of people, and it can be done. We have the information and many of the tools, but too often human rights are given short shrift in favor of the short-term, narrowly defined interests of states.
My office, with years of experience in preventing and responding to violations, has much to offer in this colossal struggle. And meanwhile, the world’s states, singly and together, must reform their systems of migration governance to place the interests of those suffering women, men, and children at the forefront. They’ve already endured great harm, but all too often they flee only to find not comfort and safety but fences, detention, push-back, xenophobia, and violence, and yet they have exactly the same fundamental human rights as I do, as you do, as do we all. Their lives are just as valuable, just as important as our own.
Now the trumpet summons us again, wrote Ted Sorensen, for a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself. Let us go forth to lead the land we love, to lead the land we love and the world we love, the world in which every human being is born free and equal in dignity and rights, the world that is the only legacy that we will leave for our children. Let us lead it well. I thank you very much. (Applause.)
HOGE: Zeid, in the aftermath of the horrific attacks in Paris—you’ve made some reference in your remarks—we see a rise in xenophobia in Europe; we see calls by some anti-immigrant national parties, which are on the rise, and some presidential candidates in this country to turn away Syrians, and in one case to turn away all Muslims; and of course an intensification of the bombing war itself in Syria; also seeing a rise in steps that curb human rights, like, as you said, mass surveillance and repression of dissent in the name of defeating the threat posed by terrorism.
What is there in the existing U.N. toolbox that you had, the human rights toolbox, that you can address the immensity of all these violations?
AL HUSSEIN: What is particularly disturbing is that those who are paying the price for the failure of the international system, the failure of the U.N. Security Council to do its work, the failure of the powers that have the responsibilities, that have the way—or let’s say the wherewithal to begin to resolve these problems and have not done so, it is the migrant struggling with his or her family to make a crossing—to make the crossing of the Mediterranean, or the migrant that’s trying to force family members into the back of a truck that is risking all for the failure of the international system.
This is the saddest part, I think, of the work that we’re doing, that the cost is being borne and being paid by those who are the most marginalized, disenfranchised, discriminated against: those suffering the effects of war, poverty, and degradation. And there’s something profoundly unjust about it.
And what seems to happen is that we think very mechanically. The solutions being proposed now by many in Europe are the same, or sort of, formerly that were used in the past, to no great effect unfortunately. And so a different sort of thinking needs to sort of obtain and capture the imagination of the political classes who have the responsibility to ensure that there is a change of heart. And we do need to see the anti-foreigner sort of tendencies removed.
I mean, what is so amazing to me is that distinctions are being drawn between “migrant” and “refugee,” as if to the xenophobe it matters. The xenophobe only cares that you’re foreign. That’s enough to dislike—distrust you. And so, you know, creating categories I think is also dangerous because, as we’ve seen in many parts of Europe, once you categorize persons as migrants and then others do the work of ascribing more pejorative terms to that category, in the end some very nasty things happen to people who are innocent and not deserving of this.
What tools do we have? Well, we do speak out. And I have irritated my share of governments. And I think what I greatly value in this is the fact that international media is a friend of the human rights agenda. And I think in many cases governments realize that if they pick a fight with us, it is a losing battle for them if it continues, that it’s more likely that it—that the international media would cover our point of the story and give it a special prominence. And so we have some leverage from that perspective.
HOGE: Human rights is one of the three famous pillars of the United Nations, peace and security being the first, development being the second, and human rights being the third. That suggests a certain equality, but as you well know and often mention, the human rights part only gets 3 percent of the U.N. budget.
How can you make human rights more important to donors and to governments? And is it possible to demonstrate—and you kind of did in your remarks, about what makes these people leave their home—to demonstrate that an investment in human rights is a wise investment in holding up the other two pillars: security and development?
AL HUSSEIN: You know, Warren, for me it’s been a very difficult job, this, because the exposure one has to the suffering of people is so immense. And at one stage I was being interviewed in Mexico, and I had just met families of disappeared. And it’s on the back of many months of meeting victims groups and victims of torture who come to Geneva. And I sit and I listen to them. And I was just about to be interviewed, a television interview, and I thought to myself, what am I, a complete fraud? Can I really make a difference to these poor people who have lost their children and their parents and their brothers and sisters by making a speech or giving an interview or producing another report?
I mean, we have to be careful in the human rights movement—community that we’re not sort of delusional about what it is that we can do, and yet someone has to speak out and someone has to speak out within the U.N. system. And, you know, we know the cost of not doing so, and we know what it means to the U.N. and to the international community writ large if we don’t do so. And ultimately we gain strength from seeing the immense courage that human rights defenders will demonstrate.
Time and again, one is amazed when you come across people who give up everything, everything they hold dear because they made the decision to speak out. They will be prepare to forfeit seeing their children grow, spending time with their friends, pursuing their lifetime ambition, and in particular trade, and knowing that they could go to prison and never emerge, and yet they still speak.
And so it leaves the rest of us in the international governmental system sort of humbled. And you feel a sort of personal sense of sort of insufficiency, but at the same time you feel that one—you have to—you have to do this—you have to do this job and you have to do it properly.
And I remember Navi Pillay said to me when I first sat with her, and she said, there’s only one way to do this, and you just—you know, don’t come out soft. So I’ve tried to follow her.
HOGE: Navi Pillay being a predecessor.
AL HUSSEIN: That’s right.
Zeid, the U.N. used to get terrible marks for human rights because of the notorious Human Rights Commission, a commission that was so bad that Kofi Annan once said it cast its shadow over the entire United Nations organization.
In 2006, the commission was replaced by a Human Rights Council, which is now there, and it was meant to be a better body in that the commission suffered from two perceptions. One was that it almost exclusively criticized one country, Israel, to the exclusion of everybody else, and secondly, real rogue nations were able to get positions on that commission and thereby block any investigation of their own country’s records. The Council and its structures and its universal peer review was supposed to correct all of that.
I want to now go to last Thursday in Geneva when Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, a country which just succeeded in being re-elected to the Human Rights Council, a country with an atrocious human rights record—when Nicolás Maduro flew out to Geneva to speak to the Council, and a lot of people protested—I think the U.S. protested almost officially, but human rights organizations also saying this man should not be allowed to go and whitewash the human rights record of Venezuela, which, by the way, on December 6th is having a National Assembly election.
You did something rather remarkable. When Maduro came into the room—I think he was in the room at that time—you played a video of you basically criticizing, or citing other people’s criticisms of Venezuela for jailing journalists, for repressing dissent, for having—not having an independent judiciary. This is a country which has jailed for—it’s supposed to be for 13 years, the leader of the political opposition.
And that caught Maduro by surprise. He went ahead and gave his speech, which he acknowledged none of that. And actually I saw some accounts of a meeting he had afterwards with other countries in which he assailed you and said that the U.N. should be about countries, not about bureaucrats.
My question—I have two questions. One is, is the Council really better than the old commission? And the second question is, that action you took of, to my mind, sort of naming and shaming the despotic leader of a member state of the United Nations, are you going to keep doing that? Is that the Zeid model?
AL HUSSEIN: I think the Human Rights Council is more successful than the commission. When you see the amount of resolutions that are produced calling for investigations into gross human rights violations, it’s really quite astonishing. I mean, I think we’re running about six at the moment and they seem to be coming with every session of the Human Rights Council.
The way that we worked together, my office and the Council, on the Sri Lanka file I thought was successful. We were under great pressure to produce a report in March, and—at the request of the Sri Lankans but also at the request of three distinguished, imminent advisers that we had we requested from the Human Rights Council that we postpone the submission of the report until September.
And this was approved, and it was a wise decision because the report that was produced we believe was really quite historic and hopefully now sets the stage for a new Sri Lanka. It’s going to be painful, it’s going to be tough to get that, but at least that opportunity is there. And so the—I think the Council is better than its predecessor.
On the naming and shaming, I had a statement—I gave a statement back in June where I reversed it. I said it’s not—it’s not that we name and shame. You, the countries that abuse your own people, you shame yourselves. You shame yourselves and we name you. The shaming is already—the shaming has already been done. We point out your shame that you have caused yourself and your people. And so will I continue to it? Yes.
HOGE: Good. (Applause.)
Has anyone asked about peacekeeping? You of course were a peacekeeper yourself. I’m remembering when I was the New York Times correspondent covering the United Nations. Rather dramatically, in 2005 I think it was, Kofi Annan asked you—it was the time where the first instances of sexual abuse were coming out. And this is particularly damaging to the United Nations because there probably is no part of the U.N. that is more widely known than peacekeeping.
AL HUSSEIN: No.
HOGE: We all know those blue helmets. And to have that symbol tarnished that way is serious, so Kofi Annan asked you if you would investigate it. The reason I remember it as being dramatic is you came back with a report that was as hard-hitting a report as any I ever saw. And I think I can speak for my colleagues in the press corps at that time. We all thought, boy, this is the real thing.
But then you did something else eight months later that I was really impressed by. You published the report; we all wrote about it; eight months later you came back and you said, you know, nothing ever happened. You said that member states listened with utter silence to the measures that you were recommending there. And I thought that was remarkable also that you—and we wrote it all over again, so you got two shots at it.
Then, now 10 years later, unfortunately the issue has come up again, so much so that the secretary-general has had to actually remove the leader of a human rights operation in the—in the Central African Republic. And once again it’s bringing shame to peacekeeping. I’m not quite sure what my question is except that how can we put an end to this?
AL HUSSEIN: When Kofi asked me to look into this—and I had to maneuver the General Assembly so that the General Assembly asked me to do it. It wasn’t Kofi that asked me. But the first thing I did is sit with Brian Urquhart. And I asked Brian if this was something that goes back to the origins of peacekeeping, and he said, yes, he distinctly remembers there were abuses in the first Congo operation from ’60 to ’64.
And I certainly remember in the case of UNPROFOR—and there are a number of colleagues here who served with me, and they will recall that we had really some significant abuses, not, I’d say, just of a sexual nature, sexual violence, but—an exploitation, but other abuses that run the gamut of all potential illicit activity.
And what I discovered when I looked into the allegations in the Congo—Nici Dahrendorf, I think, wrote a note, sent it to UNICEF headquarters and said, you know, when you look at the sexual exploitation and abuse by nations, what you will find is it’s a marker for so much else that’s also happening. And it’s just one clear indication of a breakdown. And if you look hard enough you might find that they’re selling fuel, that they’re selling weapons, that they’re trafficking human beings, that—you know, it’s just how hard you’re going to look.
It was clear to us, when we examined this at the time, that there was a—the basis of it was a strong power sort of differential and the fact that there’s few incentives on the military side for commanders to cooperate. If you’re the commander of a battalion and you know fully well that your soldiers are engaged in this criminal activity, you know that one, you know, word of this is going to lead ultimately to your maybe being demoted at worst, but you’re going to certainly be given the worst staff job when you get home; that you brought disgrace, you know, regarding the reputation of your own—your own forces, your country’s contribution to peacekeeping, and you have no reward for having done the right thing were you to speak up and were you to point out these abuses.
We proposed at the time that the secretary-general write a letter of commendation to every commander who does the right thing, but that sort of recommendation was never picked up at the time. We proposed that all court martials—and this is a mandatory thing—must be conducted in situ, and it’s not a matter of, you know, discretion, and the member states rejected that.
HOGE: They would be conducted by the home countries?
AL HUSSEIN: Yes, the law—the law where the military is concerned always follows the soldiers. So the court martials would be conducted at the site of where the alleged crimes were to have taken place. And then we made recommendations that all those participating in the field need to give a sample of their DNA, both to establish paternity but to create a deterrence, and that was rejected.
And there was a whole sort of series of recommendations we made that never got anywhere. And there was—there’s this famous draft convention that stuck in one of the committees at the U.N. which also gives jurisdictional coverage for the civilians who work for the U.N., so that if you are accused of, let’s say, rape and you come from a country that cannot exercise its jurisdiction extraterritorially, you would still be covered if the country had acceded to the convention.
As it stands now, if you come from such a country and you have committed rape, the most the U.N. can do is fire you from your job. The U.N. conducts an administrative inquiry and then you’re fired. So there’s no—I mean, there’s no real measure that I can see that was taken—adopted by the member states in 2005 that would begin the process to put an end to this horrific phenomenon. And alas, as you said, it’s continued to this present day, and almost every week we receive another allegation that we have to pursue and follow up. And it’s very disturbing, of course.
I went to the Central African Republic in respect of the allegations of last year, and I met with the community at the M’Poko camp and talked to the families, talked to the women. And what was so heartbreaking is that, you know, you see how they’re living there and you think on top of all of that suffering that you had peacekeepers, non-U.N. but also the U.N. has been alleged in other instances of abusing—of abusing children. It’s just unforgivable.
HOGE: I think we’re going to go get some questions from the floor, if you would raise your hand and wait for the microphone. The gentleman here in the third row. And could I ask you to identify yourself? The microphone is right there.
Q: Stephen Schwebel.
What accounts for the practice of suicide bombing, and does it have roots in Islam?
AL HUSSEIN: You ask a very good question. What we need to unpack is the ideology of Takfirism, the extreme end of the Salafi movement, which is the ideology of all these different extremist groups that we see. Whether you speak of ISIS or Daesh or Jabhat al-Nusra, which gave birth to ISIS, or al-Qaida or any of these groups, the ideological root is the same. And in traditional Islam, no, suicide is not permitted. They have rationalized to themselves that, in the conduct of jihad, that it is permissible, but I think in orthodox interpretations there are variations from that way of thinking.
And what we really need to do—and I have spoken about this in the U.N. Security Council—is we need to, you know, open up and develop fully the battlefront on the ideological side. I mean, it’s amazing to me that no one likes to speak of Takfirism, and it’s very odd when people speak of jihadists. I don’t even really know what that means. Why not speak of, you know, who these people really are, the Takfiris? And the more we know about them, the more that we can perhaps develop strategies for undoing the sort of—the worldview that they have, which needs to be deconstructed and returned back into something that is not as pernicious and threatening to the rest of us as it currently is.
HOGE: The gentleman here in the second row.
Q: Sir, thank you so much for doing it. My name is Chris Gates (sp).
In 1945, there was such a possibility that was present in the formation of the United Nations and its being brought to New York, and just all of the possibility of it. Is there—and yet I’m present to all of you great people who were so committed, and the world’s not listening or behaving or tuned in to the possibility of what’s—you know, what’s available at the United Nations. What is the new possibility that you could create that might have the world kind of snap out of it and align with what you’re committed to?
AL HUSSEIN: I mean, for me it’s amazing—and I hope you will come and visit me, not all at the same time, but—(laughter). You know, when I sit in my office, which is the original League of Nations building from 1920 to 1936—it served as the home of the league and it hasn’t changed. The exterior of it is exactly the same, interior—there was a fire and it had to be rebuilt, but still some of the original building is there.
And I think to myself, you know, I’m sitting here, I’m looking at Lake Geneva, and in this building, this was the answer to the horrors of the First World War. A league was conceived of at the Paris Peace Conference to put an end to the recurrence of this sort of trauma that Europe had to face already once.
And then there’s my office, which is the—which flowed from the Universal Declaration, which itself was the answer to the Second World War. It was part of the recognition that you couldn’t—you couldn’t go through this again. And here both are fused in this one space that we occupy.
And then you realize that, you know, we’ve gone through this long piece where a world war is concerned. You know, 70 years is not a bad record, but is it now—are we descending? The last time we had a long peace, barring the Franco-Prussian War, it ended very badly, and are we returning to something like that where the accumulation of crises is at a rate beyond our ability to resolve them? And even those that we see happening in slow motion, like Burundi, we’re unable to arrest and prevent.
I mean, I say this having now fingers crossed in the last, you know, week or so. We’ve seen the situation calm slightly, but that is I think because there have been now sufficient alarm bells rung, and the fears concerning what might happen there are so acute that perhaps they’ve taken stock of this and are not going to push Burundi and the rest of the Great Lakes region over the edge. But certainly one is worried about the state of the world, and I think we have ample justification to feel like that.
HOGE: I have somebody in the back of the room I didn’t call on before. Yes?
Q: Thanks. Walter Kemp from IPI.
Karl Popper wrote in “The Open Society,” we should claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. With the situation as we see it now in France, how do we maintain stability in open societies without jeopardizing our own security?
AL HUSSEIN: Yeah, I mean, clearly you don’t over-simplify the matter. And one has to look deeply into why integration hasn’t worked the way it should have worked and what can we learn from models of integration where it has worked? I mean, and many have said this before.
If you look at some of the greatest cities in the world, it’s an example of how, over centuries, peoples have found a way to live together because they must. They had to find a way. Otherwise the city is unworkable. Services had to be provided. Neighborhoods thrived. And it was only in cities where you had neighborhoods and not segregated communities completely that a city was worth its salt and could live up to its reputation.
And so the great cities of the world gave us a guide, you know, how we can better integrate our societies in ways that do not allow for the easy and rather cheap shots that some politicians take at laying everything and all the blame at the—at the weakest and the most marginalized. I mean, how many times do we have go through this? Honestly, sometimes you sort of get tired to talking about it because, you know, we’ve gone through these historic episodes before and yet you see the same, you know, rise of the same tendencies again that should have been so discredited and should have been banned and outlawed from, you know, from practice almost.
And having said that, I’m absolutely foursquare in defense of the right to freedom of expression. I don’t want to ban anything. No, but I mean, the thing is one has to exercise responsible, sort of, thinking when it comes to this, and it worries me when I look across Europe or I look at the tabloids in the United Kingdom, and I’ve spoken out quite forcefully about it, and how—in one case we looked at one particular tabloid over the course of a month and there were 22 consecutive days where they were casting migrants in a sort of pejorative way.
So sort of you’re coaching your population, and there are too many—too many populist leaders who are coaching their populations. And then something is going to happen and then everyone will be surprised.
Q: Raghida Dergham, Al-Hayat.
Two points, if I may. One is about this possibility of ad hoc laws or measures that are taken in the aftermath of 911, at that point, but now over what’s happening all over the world by ISIS. Is there anything or any rule for you, anything that you need to say about these ad hoc measures or laws to protect human rights in the process?
And the second point is that, you know, accountability—when it comes to accountability, it seems what’s happening in Vienna talks, everybody is avoiding the issue of accountability, particularly when it applies to Bashar al-Assad, because the deal needs to be made and because some people feel, well, never mind accountability if it’s going to stop the fighting. Where do you stand on this? Is it OK to shove accountability under the rug in order to get a deal?
AL HUSSEIN: Raghida, you know the answer is no. (Laughter.)
The answer to your first question is that human rights law is not discretionary. It’s binding. It’s binding law, you know? And this is something that people sometimes don’t understand. They think it’s a sort of boutique issue. No, and it’s the distillation of human experience.
We’ve gone through so much trauma before, that it wasn’t just a highly educated group of lawyers that decided to draw up these treaties and covenants but people who had suffered and seen enough suffering to know that you couldn’t continue the way the world was at the time in 1945. And so it’s not something to just be discarded in favor of an exception: Well, we had to torture them because these were exceptional circumstances. The fact of the matter is that there is no justification for torture, no justification because nothing is truly exceptional in the sense that we’ve lived so much of this before, the variations of the same themes.
In terms of, you know, amnesty provisions, I mean, in the case of Yemen I think it is clear that the amnesty secured by Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family were disastrous—or it was disastrous in the end. And the Security Council twice—I shouldn’t make it too strong a remark because I can see my good friend Hardeep Puri, who was on the Security Council at the time. But you’re not responsible for this.
But the Security Council basically endorsed these decisions on granting amnesty to Ali Abdullah Saleh, and in the end it has proven highly destructive. His mere presence, what he was—what he did to—in contributing to the current crisis, I mean, is I don’t think in dispute. So certainly there should be no discussion of amnesty provisions for anyone, certainly not Bashar al-Assad.
HOGE: The gentleman there in the last row.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much. Allen Hyman.
And thank you to your country for accepting the burden of taking care of so many Syrian refugees. I hope going from being a prince to a high commissioner is a promotion. I’m not sure. (Laughter.)
To echo JFK’s words, the right to free expression to say or print or even draw cartoons about what you believe in is an important human right, but too many fundamentalists and some governments try to demonize or criminalize people who express religious views that are not in the mainstream.
As the Jordanian ambassador to the U.N., you voted for a so-called anti-blasphemy law that I think won U.N. vote, and many journalists in Muslim countries and even poets were put in prison. Now that you are the high commissioner of the United Nations, have you taken a different position in regard to free expression as a basic human right? And can you say explicitly that you support free expression about religion?
AL HUSSEIN: I now know what it feels like to be an American politician with a record of voting behind me. (Laughter.)
You know, the right to freedom of expression was sort of codified, if you will, because it was the principal check against tyranny—the principal check against tyranny. And the supposition always is that if you give a wide berth to freedom of expression, the society, by dint of experience and wisdom, self-regulates; that you will always have discordant voices on the margins saying the wildest things and that’s all right. Let them say it. Let them say it. The danger is when it’s not just a few voices but it’s a conditioning, and then a density begins to develop on that margin. And here, if societies don’t self-regulate, we see what happens—we see what happens. There are other rights then that are, you know, under threat.
And so, you know, the right has to be given as wide a berth as possible. You have a right to be insulted as well. But at the same time, societies have to be vigilant. Societies have to exercise that right. If I have people who are saying—oh, let’s say that I’m insulted; that’s what I do. I mean, if there are political leaders saying outrageous things then I will also speak. In many societies they’re too intimidated to speak, and so the only person exercising that right is the person exercising power because they threaten retribution for those who will themselves try and say something.
As the former ambassador of the Czech Republic once said to me—he said to me, you know, in all societies you have freedom of expression. It’s just a matter whether you have freedom after expression that you have to worry. (Laughter.)
Q: Rita Hauser.
Zeid, just to shift a bit, you were instrumental, among many others, in getting adoption of the International Criminal Court. Looking back, does the Court fulfill the functions you had hoped, both of delivering justice and as a deterrent to other would-be terrible violators? Are you happy with the development of the Court?
AL HUSSEIN: You know, when the statute was adopted on that sort of hot Italian afternoon, or sort of Roman afternoon on the 17th of July, 1998, and there was this sort of thunderous applause, and we got up and we were kissing and hugging—you know, kissing and hugging people you’d never met before. (Laughter.) But that was all right. I mean, we really thought—we really thought that we had changed the world. And we really felt it. And it was the culmination of years of negotiation.
And we didn’t realize at the time that we were far ahead of everyone else, that this was a group of a few thousand lawyers who had done this work with lots of activists from different parts of the world. But by and large, the publics of the world didn’t know what it was we were doing. And at the very—it was very clear that the political class wasn’t really understanding of what it is that we were doing around the world.
And so we were perhaps naïve in thinking that the change would be immediate, and it’s proven to be much more difficult than that. And I was very upset when the South African government did not abide by the instructions of the Pretoria High Court in respect of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, because I think if he had been detained, then it may well have sent a message to, you know, to so many countries, whether it be Burundi or Iraq or Syria or Yemen, that the world is changing and you cannot continue to commit these sorts of abuses with impunity.
And so it was—it was a blow that he wasn’t detained, but he did have to leave in a hurry. He did have to leave in a hurry. And so, you know, we have to be a bit more patient but it will happen.
HOGE: Bill Lewis (sp).
Q: Mr. High Commissioner, thank you for coming. And thank Gillian for continuing this series. It’s been a vital part of this Council’s work.
I want to know what you calculate when you make the decision to be bold. What goes through your mind when you decide to stand up firmly and loudly? The high commissioner has the most important single voice on human rights in the world today, and you’ve executed it brilliantly. But when I’ve seen you do things quickly and smartly and important, I never know why you do them when you do them. Who do you talk to? Do you calculate that maybe going for this individual as opposed to that state may do more damage than good? What goes through your mind?
AL HUSSEIN: You must have been talking to my wife about—(laughter).
In every case I think it’s quite different. The most painful experience for me was at the end of the year, last year, I was traveling to Australia with my family to see and spend the New Year with some friends. And I arrived in Sydney to hear—only to hear that my own country had put to death 11 people, executed 11 people after a moratorium that had been in existence for eight years.
And so I went and wrote the press release myself and issued it. And then to my deep, deep disappointment—and I was horrified really—I discovered that my father signed the death warrants. And it led to a very painful discussion with him. He had been regent at the time and the government asked him to sign. And I was—I was appalled. The country hasn’t gone back to executing people.
And I had—I expressed my deep regret on another occasion on this issue. And my mother called me up, and my mother said to me—every Thursday for the last 55 years she meets with her friends for lunch. And so she called me up and she said, you know, the girls were talking about you. (Laughter.) And she said, you know, do you have to be so critical of your own country? And I said, mother, if you don’t understand what it is that I am doing then it’s a hard job.
No, I think though, the thing is that it is a tough job because if you can imagine meeting the representatives of—it’s, you know, four or five governments a day, and each one is—each meeting is tense. Each meeting our office is saying, you know, you need to do better. You cannot continue to do this, whatever the rights are that we’re discussing. And of course there’s a defensiveness on the part of governments. And then often if we are strident in the tone, the return fire is very personal.
There’s only one national leader that I’ve singled out for personal sort of comments. Otherwise we talk about policies, discriminatory policies, policies that violate human rights, and yet the return fire is always personal because so often they don’t want to discuss the detail. So it’s easier just to attack the U.N. and attack the spokesperson’s office, to attack my representative in a country, to PNG, then—or to attack me personally.
So sometimes we make calculations about, you know, how to—what to say. And often it’s at the end of a strategy that we have in place in any case. And then when we see an ongoing violation that hasn’t stopped, then we don’t need to sort of calibrate it as carefully. But it is a—it is a tough job, but one well worth doing, of course.
HOGE: Evelyn Leopold?
Q: Good to see you again. Evelyn Leopold, journalist at the United Nations.
What impact do you think the horrific events in France will have? Will Islamophobia continue, be stronger, be worse? We already have eight ridiculous governors in this country that have said they’re not going to accept refugees and migrants. And if the one man—one of the culprits turns out to have been a migrant—they’re still—migrant—they’re still looking into it—what do you think—how do you stop the reaction from being worse?
AL HUSSEIN: Yeah, I mean, one cannot conceive of a European continent which is going to thrive economically if borders are impregnated or have—certainly not impregnated, but are fenced off with walls and barbed wire and machine gun nests and observation towers. And you think, well, in a century where finance and capital can move in a nanosecond, and yet what, we’re going to have long lines at borders while every vehicle is checked and X-rayed so that—to make sure that no migrants are hiding in the fuel tank? I mean, you know, what sort of a Europe are you going to look at?
But indeed, what sort of world are we going to look at? It’s clearly not the prescription. It’s sort of maybe the gut reaction, but it’s not the prescription. The prescription is that we need a sort of new governance when it comes to issues of migration. And it’s not just refugees, entitled to protections in the 1951 convention, but it’s all—it’s all migrants. They all have their human rights. They all should not be abused.
And, really, the way that some of them are treated in countries is just absolutely shocking. I read a report by a UNICEF official who had traveled with a group of migrants for 10 days. And what she wrote, she said she never thought that she’d see this in Europe, never thought that it would be possible.
So one hopes that one understands that what we have to stand up against is Takfirism. It’s not Islam. It’s not Muslims, not—as someone said, you know, if 1.6 billion Muslims thought the way the Takfiris thought, the world would have ended a long time ago. (Laughter.) It’s these Takfiris, and we have to isolate their way of thinking, and then, you know, sort of deconstruct it. We have to do it.
HOGE: We’ve got time for one last question. Henry Reed?
Q: Thank you so much. You spoke very intriguingly and very eloquently about cities as models, successful cities as models of integration and co-existence. I’d like to look at the flip side of that thought, or ask you to do so, and talk about the heritage destruction that’s taking place and what you feel it means.
AL HUSSEIN: I mean, it’s absolutely horrifying, the destruction of memory, the eradication of any vestige of the existence of peoples. I mean, it’s profoundly disturbing. And you and I, Henry, served together in the former Yugoslavia and we saw this in the former Yugoslavia. And there’s sort of—there’s a villainy to it that can’t be overestimated. And clearly it’s a nihilism in another form and, again, something that we need to all confront together.
HOGE: That’s all the time we have for it. I want to finally say thank you, Gillian, once again, for this wonderful series. (Applause.) Thank you and thank—and thank you for fulfilling it here. (Applause.)
AL HUSSEIN: Thank you.
This is an uncorrected transcript.