Goodbye to Human Rights: What the Departure of a UN Chief Means for Human Rights

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Written by Rosemary Youhana

In April 2018, Ambassador Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein officially announced he would not seek a second term as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. As the international community navigates a troubling retreat from human rights, Ambassador Hussein has been an unapologetically vocal critic of the illiberal world order—one seemingly favored Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump, to name a few. The last year of Hussein’s mandate proved to be the most trying and, given the challenges he’s confronted over the past four years, ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back. We are in an era that is increasingly impervious to human rights—and the High Commissioner’s stepping down is indicative of this bleak reality.

When then UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon first appointed ambassador Hussein in September 2014, the global human rights snapshot was already quite grim. The world was scrambling to deal with the scourge of the so-called Islamic State, Syria was three-years deep in a bloody civil war, and Russia was gearing up for yet another land grab, this time in Ukraine. Decades of conflict in the Middle East and Africa had forced waves of refugees to Europe, which stoked the xenophobic fires of right-wing political parties to gain significant support in many European countries. In short, Ambassador Hussein had a packed agenda from the start.

It was the series of events starting in 2016 that proved to be the most difficult, and indeed insurmountable for Ambassador Hussein. From the rise of chauvinistic nationalism in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, to the prevalence of unchecked war crimes committed in Myanmar, the Philippines, and Yemen. It’s a small wonder Ambassador Hussein called this an “appalling climate for advocacy.”

Yet, it’s hardly the presence of these moral scourges that have worn down the Ambassador, but rather the international community’s inability to rise to the challenges to counter them. Whether this inaction stems from institutions like the UN and its gridlock on Syria and Israel, or on a state level—like the United States’ shameful support of the Saudi military in the Yemen crisis—it appears Ambassador Hussein is the world’s sole conscience on human rights, and he’s been fighting alone.

The UN’s failure to address international crises cannot be overstated. The fact that the United States, Russia, and China politicize their veto power in the Security Council to their own interests has effectively robbed the international community of what was promised to them: an impartial governing body to maintain international peace and security. The High Commissioner has long bemoaned the stifled Security Council on its inability to put aside its own geopolitical interests in favor of policies that respond to crises. The most obvious example being Russia’s constant vetoing of Security Council resolutions that work to act against—or even condemn—Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s policy of indiscriminately targeting civilians. The United States also blocked a resolution condemning Israel’s use of lethal force against Palestinian protestors in Gaza this past April.

The Security Council is hardly the only human rights disappointment giving the High Commissioner grief as individual states’ policies have been a particularly troubling source of abuses, ones that the High Commissioner has made his business to openly condemn. He has suggested that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte seek psychiatric treatment and blasted President Trump’s xenophobic policies of separating families and barring entire religious groups from entering the United States. Ambassador Hussein has no plans to go gently into that good night. The rise of ultra-nationalist right-wing parties who seek to ostracize immigrants, refugees, and others has posed a particular challenge to the High Commissioner’s work. In April, Hungary re-elected Viktor Orban for the third time, a Prime Minister who has been a vocal critic of immigration and Europe’s visage of democratic backsliding, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.

The High Commissioner’s mandate is not nearly as vast as, for example, that of the UN Security Council. He supervises the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and other UN bodies like the General Assembly and the Security Council on human rights situations. In many regards, it’s not hard to understand his frustration. Being a champion of human rights in this climate is to constantly observe its most frightening downturn in recent history and without the ability effectuate the kind of change to end it.

Ambassador Hussein is set to step down at the end of August, and UN Secretary General António Guterres has already tapped former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet to serve as the seventh High Commissioner for Human Rights. When asked during an outgoing press conference if he had any advice for his successor, he offered the same words of wisdom that his predecessor, Navi Pillay, left him with: just come out swinging. And that’s what he did. It’s unclear what lies ahead for Ambassador Hussein, but his stepping down is nevertheless an ominous foreboding for human rights, at least in the immediate future.

About the author: Rosemary Youhana is the 2018 Human Rights Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). Previously, Youhana worked as an advocacy associate at the Assyrian Universal Alliance Americas Chapter where she collaborated with civil society organizations based in Iraq, Syria and Turkey on human rights issues facing ethnic and religious minorities. She holds BAs in International Relations and French from the University of California Santa Barbara and a Master’s in International Affairs with a focus on human rights and global governance from American University’s School of International Service.

UN Photo/Yubi Hoffmann