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.
Zeid’s appointment was welcomed in editorials and by commentators from Hong Kong to India to Africa and Latin America, but he, too, may find rough going, though from a different quarter, if he appears to carry out his mandate too closely aligned with the West, not willing to oppose it. Educated almost entirely in the United States and Britain, he has an undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins and two graduate degrees from Cambridge. He has served as Jordanian ambassador in Washington and since 2000 has been his country’s envoy to the United Nations. His mother is Swedish and his wife, Sarah, was born in the United States to British parents. Zeid is a member of the Hashemite royal clan (and a direct descendant of the last king of Iraq, who was overthrown in 1958), but he is not part of the immediate family of Jordan’s King Abdullah.
In 1997, as deputy ambassador at the UN and a scholar of international law, Zeid was active in the establishment of the International Criminal Court—an unpopular institution in many countries, especially in Africa, where leaders have announced they will no longer cooperate with it. He chaired the negotiations over the legal definitions of the crimes to be included in the new court’s jurisdiction, and was elected the first president of the governing body of the court when it began its work in The Hague in 2002. Earlier he had been a political officer with a UN peacekeeping mission in the Balkans, and later, in 2004, headed a panel that produced a report for the secretary-general on dealing with sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers.
Though some critics are questioning the human rights and religious freedom records of Jordan, which he served faithfully as a diplomat, Zeid’s writings and speeches reflect the thinking of a new generation of Arab intellectuals, such as those who have contributed to the UN’s groundbreaking Arab Human Development Reports in recent years. In a speech at John Hopkins in 2012, he cautioned against viewing the protests of the Arab spring through a Western European lens. He rejected the comparison with revolutions in 1848 in Europe.
“The fundamental difference between these two sets of revolutions,” he told students at Johns Hopkins in 2012, “is that there is no clearly articulated, authentically Arab liberal philosophy.” He added that unlike the Europeans, who stood on the shoulders of Rousseau, Montesquieu, Locke and Marx, “there are no liberal Arab philosophers that can carry these sentiments, these tumultuous expressions of yearning on the part of youth for something better, and transform them from being mere expressions to concrete results. What we have now is our default position—Islamic ideologies.”
Since that speech, the situation has grown much more dangerous in the Middle East-North African region, and Zeid will be watched closely for how he deals with governments and possibly the self-styled proponents of a new Caliphate threatening to erase borders and plunge country after country into the crude totalitarianism that belies a glorious early Islamic history and scholarship. He will be the best placed of all UN officials to try to build and nurture the still small voices of Arab liberalism and political moderation so much in need of examples to embrace.