After four years as an outspoken defender of human rights for the United Nations, Jordanian royal Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein is set to continue his work as a member of The Elders, the group of statesmen formed by Nelson Mandela in 2007 to promote equality and world peace.
The Elders announced Mr Al Hussein's appointment, along with former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, both Nobel Peace laureates, earlier this week.
Mr Al Hussein stepped down as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights last September after a four-year term in which he became became increasingly at odds with world powers he accused of failing to uphold the ideals of the very international system they created. His refusal to stand for a second term, because he expected to be opposed by these same countries, ended a stellar career of more than two decades in the United Nations.
Born in Amman in 1964 and educated in Britain and the United States, Mr Al Hussein is a cousin of Jordan’s King Abdullah and a member of the Hashemite royal family. His father, Prince Ra’ad Al Hussein, serves as the king's chief chamberlain and is head of the royal house of the now defunct Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq.
Mr Al Hussein's rise in the UN began with a stint as political officer in UNPROFOR, its first peacekeeping force in the former Yugoslavia, from 1994-1996.
In 2000, after four years as deputy representative for Jordan's mission to the UN, Mr Al Hussein was made permanent representative, a post he quickly used to push for international justice and greater protection of civilians from human rights abuses.
An expert in international justice, Mr Al Hussein helped draft the statute and regulations establishing the International Criminal Court, leading negotiations to define the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
After a decade working on peacekeeping issues, the Jordanian prince was tapped by then UN secretary general Kofi Annan in 2004 as an adviser to the secretary general to address sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeeping forces.
In 2006, Jordan nominated Mr Al Hussein to succeed Annan as UN secretary general. He was among five finalists for the post, which eventually went to Ban Ki-moon.
Mr Al Hussein served as Jordanian ambassador to the US from 2007 to 2010, at a key period of transition in US policy from the Bush administration to the Obama administration. He was then reappointed Jordan’s permanent representative to the UN in 2010.
But it was Mr Al Hussein’s appointment as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2014 that brought him international recognition and placed him in the cross-hairs of governments and despots across the globe.
Mr Al Hussein said he considered his post to be an “ambassador of human rights” who steps in to defend victims of rights abuses or discrimination when their governments failed to do so, rather than that of a bureaucrat simply recording or witnessing abuses.
Taking a no-holds-barred approach, he called out the likes of ISIS, the Syrian regime, the Myanmar army’s “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya, Israel’s discriminatory policies, the EU for its migration policies, and the UN itself for past failures.
With the recent rise of autocratic-leaning nationalist leaders looking to tear down the international system, Mr Al Hussein found himself increasingly calling western leaders to account, ranging from Donald Trump to Hungary’s Viktor Orban, for scaling back their democracies, censoring and threatening the media, and human-rights abuses at home.
His commitment to calling out governments for human rights violations reportedly put him at odds with the leadership in Jordan, which maintained close alliances with some of his targets.
It was the outspokenness and independence which distinguished Mr Al Hussein and won him the respect of human rights activists and citizens worldwide that limited his tenure as the UN's rights commissioner. He chose not to seek a second term knowing that he would not have the backing of all five permanent members of the Security Council.
Mr Al Hussein said he refused to "bend the knee" or “prostrate” before global powers and compromise the independence of the post.
Accepting his appointment to The Elders, Mr Al Hussein said he was honoured to "join this illustrious group and work with them for a better world".
“In an age when poor leadership, injustice and suffering is rife, The Elders’ vision of a world where people live in peace and are conscious of their common humanity is essential.”