Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein: A frustrated advocate for the oppressed

The outgoing UN human rights chief called out abuse in all quarters and paid a heavy price

FILE - In this Feb. 7, 2018, file photo, U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein pauses during a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia. The outgoing U.N. human rights chief said on Monday, Aug. 20 the Security Council's five permanent members wield too much power at the United Nations, warning the world body could "collapse" if that doesn't change. Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein decried the sense among some U.N. member states that the "pentarchy" of Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States "is running too much of the business." (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara, File)
Powered by automated translation

"To be re-elected in my job would be to fail." Those words, spoken by Jordanian Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein in an interview last month, reveal the paradox that makes his job virtually impossible.

The UN high commissioner for human rights – who serves his last day on Friday – endeared himself to the human rights world over four years, with his candour and unflinching commitment to the voiceless.

But in doing so, Mr Al Hussein became the bete noire of world powers, particularly those that comprise the UN Security Council – the all-powerful “pentarchy” in his words – who might well take pleasure in his departure. “To the intolerant, I’m sort of a global nightmare, elected by all governments, yet critic of almost all,” he noted.

In an internal email last December, Mr Al Hussein, wrote that seeking re-election “might involve bending a knee in supplication”. It spoke to his reputation for calling out abuses in all quarters. Indeed, Mr Al Hussein has likened US president Donald Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orban to “demagogues” and suggested Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte seek “psychiatric evaluation”.

Unsurprisingly, insults have trickled in the other direction; Venezuela branded him “a resounding failure”, while Mr Duterte was rather more vulgar in his assessment.

These badges Mr Al Hussein appeared to wear with pride, convinced that there is no honour to be found in silence.

But therein lies the problem – and one that ultimately spelled his departure. The more Mr Al Hussein called out abuse, the more he alienated those he was tasked with reining in.

In his first act as high commissioner, he reportedly refused to share his remarks with ambassadors in advance. But the UN’s complex bureaucracy tends to isolate those who do not follow its rules, while world powers do not take kindly to being blindsided.

Declaring his candidacy for the job earlier this year, the UN’s special rapporteur for torture Nils Melzer wrote: “The next high commissioner must understand that defending human rights is not about attacking governments.”

On Saturday, it is Michelle Bachelet who will assume the mantle. As the former president of Chile, she is popular and experienced in diplomatic circles. Having served as the chief of UN Women, she knows the UN inside out. And as a torture victim herself, at the hands of the Pinochet regime, she can empathise more than most.

Yet almost 70 years on from its signing, some fear the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is moribund. Resurgent across the world are the forces of populism and xenophobia against which Mr Al Hussein endlessly clashed.

In Ms Bachelet, the world’s most oppressed people will have a courageous defender. But her success will depend on whether she can find the equilibrium between blame and co-operation that ultimately eluded Mr Al Hussein.