Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Hope for UN Accountability with New High Commissioner

This article is a profile of Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, who will be the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights next month. Zeid has a history of standing up for human rights, even against UN peacekeepers in sexual abuse cases. His appointment as the High Commissioner gives hope for continued pressure for the UN to be accountable for peacekeepers’ actions. In October 2013, the previous UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, supported compensation for UN cholera victims in Haiti.

Prince Zeid speaking at podium

‘Prince’ Could Be a Career Liability

Pooja Bhatia, Ozy
August 11, 2014

Next month, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein of Jordan will become the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the world’s moral-arbiter-in-chief. For the 50-year-old diplomat, the position could well be a prelude to secretary-general, but for now, as he noted last month, he will be the first commissioner from the Muslim Arab world and the first from Asia.

He glossed over the fact that he will be its first prince.

Now, Zeid is not a typical prince. As pretender to the now-defunct Iraqi throne, he is unlikely to be king of anything. He has noted that he is “broke,” and he descends from refugees as well as royalty. Plus he’s winsome in a nerdy way, more shabby professor than sheik, and has long been active in human rights. His Arab background seems an asset — even Israeli leaders are said to welcome his appointment.

Yet that pesky HRH is a chink in Zeid’s otherwise solid armor. It’s a reminder of the prince’s lifelong ties to the Jordanian regime headed by his cousin, King Abdullah II. For years, Zeid has been Jordan’s ambassador to the U.N. or to Washington, and of late, the country hasn’t been scoring high on the political-freedom barometer. The week Zeid’s appointment was announced, for example, Jordanian authorities suspended an Iraqi opposition TV station in Amman and arrested more than a dozen journalists. Zeid has not commented on Jordan’s abuses, and some have questioned his suitability for the human-rights post.

Still, response to Prince Zeid’s appointment has been largely positive. “He’s really pushed the envelope on human rights,” says Elizabeth Defeis, a human rights lawyer and professor at Seton Hall who has written about Zeid.

In 2002, Zeid helped usher into existence the International Criminal Court — a feat in itself — but the big test came in 2004, when then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan assigned Zeid an unsavory task: investigating allegations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Zeid’s report was “groundbreaking,” observers say. It documentedpervasive abuse on the part of the Blue Helmets, like trading food for sex with girls, and criticized the peacekeeping system for failing to punish them.

Editorials fulminated. Reform was promised. Zero tolerance was mandated. Then, as oft happens with U.N. reforms, nothing happened. But Zeid wouldn’t let up. In a leaked report, he castigated the U.N. for its “‘zero-compliance with zero tolerance’ throughout the mission.” Withering stuff, in diplospeak.

Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein, left, speaks after a U.N. Security Council vote, Feb. 22, 2014.

Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, left, speaks after a U.N. Security Council vote, Feb. 22, 2014.

“I’m pleasantly surprised that they chose someone with his willingness to ruffle institutional feathers,” says Brian Concannon Jr., a human rights lawyer who heads the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. “Zeid has a history of standing up for justice, even though that might not always be popular.”

Zeid himself is popular. In some ways, he seems the archetypal diplomat. His accent is upper-class British (his Ph.D. is from Cambridge), his voice pleasantly deep but not overbearing and, when pensive, he strokes his well-trimmed beard. Yet he is uncommonly down to earth. Presiding over the Security Council this year was “hell on earth,” he said recently, because of the council’s powerlessness to stop atrocity. In official speeches, he likes to mention his wife, Princess Sarah (née Sarah Butler, of Houston).

The prince is also a giggler. His playful manner sometimes even throws people off course. When asked recently about his family’s relationship to Iraq, Syria and Jordan, he responded: “You’ve all seen Lawrence of Arabia, to put this in context?”

The audience laughed.

“My father’s uncle is Alec Guinness.”

The audience laughed more.

“No, really,” he said, and he meant it. Zeid’s granduncle was Faisal, the man who, with T.E. Lawrence, led the Arab Revolt from 1916 to 1918. Faisal became king of Iraq; Faisal II was deposed in a bloody coup in 1958. Zeid’s father and grandfather then became refugees, and that stateless phase has made the family sensitive to the plight of refugees, Zeid has said. They weren’t refugees long, though: Another of Faisal’s brothers had become king of Jordan. His descendant is King Abdullah II, Zeid’s cousin and former boss.

To be sure, being royal doesn’t make Zeid a monarchist. And just because the regime he’s served is awful on press freedom doesn’t mean he is. Indeed, some believe Zeid is far more reformist than his past posts let him express; they believe he could be a standard bearer for Arab democracy and “build and nurture the still small voices of Arab liberalism and political moderation,” as Barbara Crossette wrote recently.

Of course, Zeid comes to the job as an Arab when the world’s worst human-rights hot spots are in the Middle East — Gaza, Iraq and Syria. “My thought is that it can be a disadvantage and an advantage,” says Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “He knows the region well, he is a Muslim and he can bring people together … but there are those who will question whether he comes with a particular bias.”

As for his own country’s human-rights issues? “It’s a valid question, and, I think, one people should press him on,” Hicks says.

Thus far, Zeid has danced around such questions with a diplomat’s grace. In 2011, back when the world still thought the Arab Spring might yield a democratic summer, Jon Stewart asked Zeid about human rights in Jordan. “Is it illegal to criticize the king in the press or is it just looked down upon?” he asked.

“Essentially, we believe we are still a family,” Zeid said by way of an answer as he plugged the king’s new book. Zeid spoke a bit about the regime’s reformist ideals, its open ear. “And again to plug His Majesty’s book,” he started seriously, before falling into a joke, “because I have to make sure it’s No. 1 in a few weeks’ time…”

Stewart laughed. “May I ask what happens if it’s not?” he asked.

“I would likely be the ambassador to Trenton, New Jersey,” Zeid said.

The audience laughed.

The answer to Stewart’s original question, by the way, is “illegal.”


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