The top human rights official at the United Nations delivered a scathing appraisal of Donald Trump earlier this month at a luncheon for the Jacob Blaustein Association, a New York-based human rights advocacy group.
In a measured tone, but very blunt language, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, talked about the American chief executive’s “chauvinistic” approach to world affairs and compared the rise of Trump—as well as a host of other elected officials, most recently in Austria—to that of Adolf Hitler.
Listening to Trump’s September speech at the United Nations, he said, his reaction was, “we have been here before. This very cocktail was consumed in the last century.” Trump’s speech was “one part chauvinistic nationalisms, one part balance-of-power swordplay and a crumbling adherence to law,” Zeid said. “Add the belief threats of violence and ultimatums will be effective. Swirl in the presence of terrorism—creating combustible fears which can be manipulated—and then stampede the public into policies from which there is no way out.
“The combination of all of this, in the early part of the 20th century, led to the annihilation of millions of people,” he warned, and it was the “calamity of two world wars and the Holocaust,” he reminded his audience, that led to the creation of a global system, the United Nations—including bodies dealing with universal human rights.
But will Trump take heed?
Almost certainly not, and several sources say that the United States is “this close” to leaving the Human Rights Council, just as it recently bolted out of the Paris-based UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO.
These are rough days for Zeid, and not only because of the man in the White House and his fellow travelers around Europe. Zeid is increasingly frustrated with the flagrant rights violators who often call the shots at the UN office in Geneva, where he’s based.
Although he disagrees, he can understand why some Americans would lose faith in the global human rights mechanism the U.S. worked to create in the aftermath of World War II. Prince Zeid, a member of Jordan’s royal family, has spent most of his adult life as a United Nations mover and shaker. Now he has until next August to make his mark as the sixth commissioner of human rights.
Meanwhile, the Geneva equivalent of Zeid’s board of directors, the Human Rights Council, keeps recruiting more and more of the world’s worst rights violators.
All this while in places like Syria, Burma, large swaths of Africa, and elsewhere, slaughter, exile, and rape are rampant. And instead of disappearing into the ashbin of history, regimes that care little about the right of dissent, the rule of law, or press freedoms are set to endure and in several cases to be recognized as world leaders.
Yet a pullout from the Human Rights Council would be a mistake, Zeid told The Daily Beast. “Strategically it makes no sense.” If the Americans leave, he said, “they will have no control whatsoever, and there will be 10 more resolutions they don’t like”—in addition to the numerous anti-Israeli resolutions that the council routinely passes now.
As critics note, rather than promoting rights, the council has long since been hijacked by top violators. Last week, the UN General Assembly elected 15 new countries to serve on the 47-member Human Rights Council. Prior to the election, the American UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, conducted an intensive campaign to undermine the candidacy of the Democratic Republic of Congo, even as the council is investigating it for gross human rights violations.
The fact that Congo was elected anyway, Haley said in a statement, “calls into serious question the General Assembly’s methods of selecting membership.” The world needs a strong unified body to address human rights violations around the globe, she said, but, as Congo’s election proves, “the Human Rights Council, as presently constituted, is not that voice.”
In June, Haley visited Geneva to raise her concerns about the council’s dubious membership (it includes violators like Russia, China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia). She also chastised the Geneva system for its Israel obsession (since its inception in 2006 the Human Rights Council passed 67 resolutions condemning Israel, and only 61 on the rest of the world combined).
Zeid, meanwhile, may be just as frustrated with his board of directors as is Haley. “I spoke about it recently, about the presence of Venezuela and Burundi,” he told The Daily Beast. Requirements for membership, which were set when the council was formed in 2006 as a replacement for the much-maligned Human Rights Commission, “need to be observed,” he said.
Moreover, “it’s not just the composition, it’s the substance of it,” Zeid told us. “When we as the office say we need an investigation on Yemen, I shouldn’t be waiting three years for it. When I say I want an investigation on Venezuela, it should come right away.” But despite such impediments, he says, his office managed to report on most of the rights violations around the world.
Zeid is quite aware that such reports are less than earthshaking and that they do not necessarily change much in the real world, including, most notably, the United States.
It’s not enough, he said, that a council report draws “a few thousand views online, or that press releases from special rapporteurs or commissions of inquiry generate a few thousand press articles, or that my office has almost 2 million followers on our Twitter feed. Not in a world of 7.6 billion people. We need now to connect to tens of millions of people, and quickly.”
So, “if the president of the United States was seemingly triggering a gradual U.S. abandonment of the international legal order,” he asks, is it “because we—who work for the United Nations and its human rights mechanisms—have failed catastrophically to make our case?”
Zeid is a big believer in the UN system. Since 2000 he has served, on and off, as Jordan’s UN ambassador. He punched way above the weight of his home country, heading a mission to Bosnia and conducting a major investigation into sex abuse among UN peacekeepers. Along with the ambassadors of Singapore and Lichtenstein, he formed a group of small countries that became increasingly influential at Turtle Bay (the Manhattan neighborhood where the UN is located).
Yet, when he served a stint as Jordan’s ambassador in Washington from 2010 to 2014, he once wondered to this reporter about how inconsequential the UN seemed in the American capital. “It looks important here,” he said during a visit to his old New York perch, “but over there, few care about what we do.”
Ambassador Haley, who wields power both in Washington and at Turtle Bay, hinted recently that perhaps the entire Geneva mechanism should be abolished. In April, when the United States served as president of the Security Council, she convened a session on human rights, arguing that violations of rights have a major effect on global peace and security.
But if the Security Council, with its five major powers, including the U.S., takes up human rights, the Human Rights Council will be obsolete. And Zeid, who has big plans to bring his Geneva operation into the 21st century, including in social media presence, will be out of office when his term ends next August.
One person, at least, will be happy. Zeid said that his daughter asked him one morning last week, “Hey, Dad, how long do you have to go on as a gray diplomat?”
She should have heard him speak at that luncheon.