Mr Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently announced that he would not be seeking a second term in office as the UN’s human rights chief. In a heart-rending indictment of the world’s commitment to the protection of human rights, he articulated that: “To do so, in the current geopolitical context, might involve bending a knee in supplication… lessening the independence and integrity of my voice — which is your voice.”
Promoting international cooperation for human rights, playing the leading role on human rights issues and giving practical effect to the will of the international community to protect human rights are axiomatic to the fundamental tenets of the office Mr al-Hussein represents. Yet, despite being the first Arab Muslim to be elected by the UN General Assembly to the OHCHR, heralded as a global symbol for the protection of human rights, he is right to feel he has come up short.
In the 2018 Rule of Law Index published by the World Justice Project, responsible for comparing the legal experiences of jurisdictions globally, it noted that the rule of law had declined in 38 countries since 2016. The United States, the world’s principal democratic superpower, fell five places to 26th in the fundamental rights category; the United Kingdom dropped out of the top ten to 11th place overall; while Venezuela retained its place at the bottom of the index. Although these statistics weave themselves into growing concerns about retreats from international obligations and dwindling criminal justice reform, Mr al-Hussein had already observed a mood afoot human rights trepidation.
Having previously served as the first president of the Assembly of State Parties of the International Criminal Court in 2002 and a UN political affairs officer in the former Yugoslavia during the Bosnian War between 1994 and 1996, Mr al-Hussein is not unfamiliar with the weighty challenges that come at the expense of championing human rights. Yet, he sets the current geopolitical context as his roadblock. It is true that the world’s attitude to human rights has set off a domino chain of public wealth misappropriation, authoritarian nationalism and the vilification of ethnic groups dangerously catalysing further polarisation, but it is pitiful to observe that when the going gets tough, Mr al-Hussein steps down.
Deputy Director for Global Advocacy at the Human Rights Watch, Phillippe Bolopion, stated: “The fact that he felt that he could not be re-appointed without compromising his voice reflects poorly on the state of world affairs and human rights at the UN.” Perhaps it does, but it also speaks to the moral resolve of a man who was ostensibly a rare example of moral clarity.
From the detention of human rights defenders in China such as Zhou Shifeng and Wang Quanzhang tougher migration restrictions by European governments in fear of terrorism, the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, positing that economic and security interests trump human rights to more than a third of Venezuela’s households living in abject poverty, there has never been more reason for the rise of human rights advocates. And so, Mr al-Hussein’s fear that his voice, while being the UN’s top human rights advocate, will be muted should alarm us all.
As the UN’s bastions of liberalism and international order slowly depart of their historical commitment to the protection of human rights, the UN’s ability to deal with human rights abuses dissipates. Following the Second World War, there was a rabid antipathy to human rights violations. Now, the UN waltzes with American economic imperialism, tangoes to arms exports to Saudi Arabia and silently sambas to the Rohingya refugee crises. Mr al-Hussein could be forgiven for simply wanting to walk away from it all. Yet, the substance of the threat to human rights has not changed, it merely takes a different form. As such, Mr al-Hussein’s decision to not seek re-election is untimely amidst the increase in xenophobia, anti-Semitism and ethnic violence. What is required is a redefined moral courage to tackle the qualms of implementation, compliance and monitoring. To face the human rights crises head-on requires reminding humanity of the reason the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed almost 70 years ago. Changing the outcomes of the future means first to change our attitude today.
First, human rights are at the forefront of global conversation. Thousands of civil society groups, courts, the press, governments and many more raise awareness concerning the protection of human rights, discuss how communities can adopt best practices, initiate legislation or investigations about how to improve the welfare of citizens. Our attitude should have nothing to do about being a part of the conversation; we need to part of the right conversation.
Second, the body of international human rights law continues to expand. With the number of persons aged 60 and over growing, the OHCHR has sought to identify new protection mechanisms, isolating gaps in policies and programmes for older persons. Moreover, over 844 million people around the world do not enjoy access to safe, clean drinking water central to human life and dignity. Through determined efforts, it now forms a basic human right.
Third, transnational action from non-state actors plays a pivotal role. Harriet Tubman, Emily Pankhurst, Olaudah Equiano, Malala Yousafzai: none of these individuals were recognised for their human rights advocacy because they were leaders of nations or transnational organisations. Rather, their brutish, tenacious desire to change harmful attitudes for the purpose of preventing injustices they similarly faced accentuates their moral courage.
In an end-of-year e-mail to the staff at the OHCHR, before the world would formally hear that Mr al-Hussein would not seek a second term in office, he wrote: “There are many months ahead of us: months of struggle, perhaps, and even grief — because although the past year has been arduous for us, it has been appalling for many of the people we serve.” The notion that millions of people around the world face some form of injustice every day is a miserable reality, but it is a lurid suggestion that this is enough to withdraw from the frontlines of the fight.
It is disappointing to see the end of Mr al-Hussein’s term this year after he brought a slavish servitude to the cause of human rights protection, notably denouncing President Trump on several occasions for his attempts to intimidate journalists and judges. However, it is equally not a time to resign our moral courage, that is our unwavering commitment to perpetual, inalienable human rights for all people.
5 February 2018
Photo credit FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images