Recently, United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein announced he would step down when his second term ends. In an internal memo to his staff, he said this is because he believed another term “might involve bending a knee in supplication; muting a statement of advocacy; lessening the independence and integrity of my voice — which is your voice.”
Zeid’s frustrations sound familiar to anyone who has objectively followed the U.N. and its record on human rights through the years. The United States also has at times expressed concerns about the undue influence of some of the world’s worst human rights abusers on the Human Rights Council, which acts as Zeid’s board of directors.
For instance, the council has, since 2006, condemned Israel 67 times and the rest of the world combined only 61. This despite the widespread abuse of human rights in many nations and the systematic torture and murder of Christians and other religious adherents in parts of the Middle East — acts that some equate with genocide.
But Zeid’s main complaints don’t focus on these obvious inconsistencies. Instead, they seem to lie with the United States and the Trump administration, which weakens his case for outrage.
He has condemned Trump for his decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords, his support for torture tactics involving enemy combatants and his response to a rally in Charlottesville last summer. Diplomatic sources reported this year that U.N. Secretary General António Guterres asked Zeid to tone down his rhetoric, fearing the U.S. would withdraw critical funding support for the U.N. if he continued to antagonize them.
Given the many blatant, deadly abuses in other parts of the world — places where, unlike in the United States, the rule of law and democratic processes have no hold — his focus seems misplaced. Certainly, the U.N. human rights commissioner should be free to condemn any nation without regard to size, status or U.N. financial support. But those condemnations ought to reflect the planet’s most serious offenses, not delve into the internal politics of democracies with constitutions that protect human rights.
In the memo to his staff, Zeid questioned the efficacy of the United Nations in championing human rights. While enforcement mechanisms are severely limited, the one clear mandate of the high commissioner is to determine the rhetoric that will be used to describe instances of human rights violations in the mass media. For example, determining the status of genocide in Myanmar is a fraught task, one that would pit the commissioner against Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.10 comments on this story
But that efficacy would carry more weight if the condemnations were apportioned more realistically with the most serious abuses.
The next high commissioner has a heavy mantle to bear — one that will require honest appraisals of human rights violations worldwide, including in countries that hold permanent membership, and veto power, on the Security Council.
We hope Guterres will pick someone who is not simply sensible for political purposes or anxious to tout personal political agendas, but who is willing to put the focus where it belongs.