With at least 200,000 thousand people dead, millions more struggling to survive as refuges and an emergent cross-border Islamist movement on the march and leaving a trail of brutal execution-style murders in its wake, life for many in the Arab Middle East is a daily catastrophe. In North Africa, tensions undermine a surface calm; in Gaza, Palestinians have again become targets of punitive Israeli attacks. From this turbulent Arabic/Muslim universe, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has chosen as the next United Nations high commissioner for human rights a Jordanian respected worldwide for his work in international law and diplomacy.
Ban’s choice, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, 50, the first Arab and first Muslim to hold this position, will take over the office in Geneva on September 1 from Navi Pillay, a South African judge who pushed hard against the invisible political walls around her office created by powerful countries. The appointment of Zeid was confirmed by the General Assembly in June.
First named to a four-year term in 2008, Pillay was denied a full second term and given only a two-year extension in a UN compromise with the United States, which wanted her out entirely because of her outspoken criticism of Israeli incursions into Gaza and other issues. But Pillay, the descendant of an indentured Indian laborer, had other critics also, among them India, which fought back to derail her bold, groundbreaking campaign against caste discrimination. In Syria, the government of President Bashar al-Assad, called her “hostile” for her public outrage over Syrian tactics in its war with rebels.
Previous high commissioners for human rights, whose office works with the Human Rights Council but does not direct it, were José Ayala-Lasso of Ecuador (1994–97, Mary Robinson of Ireland (1997–2002), Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil (2002–03) and Louise Arbour of Canada (2004–08). Bertrand Ramcharan of Guyana served as acting commissioner between the death of de Mello in a terrorist bombing of UN offices in Iraq in 2003 and the appointment of Arbour.
The two other women to hold the office before the appointment of Pillay were also known for their frank assessments and sometimes sharp criticisms, including of the United States. Robinson, a former president of Ireland and strong supporter of women’s rights, apparently ran afoul of not only Washington for her perceived tendency to side with developing nations against Western policies—she once told me that being Irish, she understood well the feeling of powerless and marginalized countries—but also of Secretary General Kofi Annan, who thought she was not a team player and often got out ahead of the UN itself. It was a period of great stress for her personally, she later wrote in a memoir, Mary Robinson: Everybody Matters, but her leadership on both gay and women’s rights had a lasting impact, starting in Ireland. Similarly Pillay, on the issue of caste discrimination and abuse, put a spotlight on a monumental human rights violation never discussed in any meaningful way at the UN, where India has a powerful unofficial lobby.
Arbour—a distinguished jurist in Canada, former chief prosecutor at the war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and head of the International Crisis Group from 2009 until this year—took on the US in strong rebukes of American violations of human rights, including torture and disappearances, in the Bush “war on terror.” She ran straight into the buzz saw of John Bolton, who, as the combative US envoy to the UN in 2005–06, attacked her in demeaning language as having no right to make judgments about American policy. Again, as with others in her position, her outspokenness may not have changed official American thinking, but it added to the chorus of well-placed global critics of American wars fought in the name of anti-terrorism and the methods employed in the pursuit of its ends.