The current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has broken many taboos: from commenting on the US Presidential candidate Donald Trump to naming and shaming the countries who matter in the UN in his addresses to the UN Human Rights Council sessions.
Many governments will not prefer the second term for Zeid. Irrespective of his future as the High Commissioner, Zeid will be an extremely hard act to follow. I say this having questioned various High Commissioners from Mary Robinson to Louise Arbour to Navi Pillay. The first High Commissioner Jose Ayala Lasso was nondescript while Sérgio Vieira de Mello did not have sufficient time before he was killed in a bomb blast in Iraq.
Breaking taboos once again
Zeid’s opening address today at the 36th Session of UN Human Rights Council will be a watershed in breaking many taboos. For most High Commissioners, it is easy to name the countries on which resolutions have already been adopted by the Council. Therefore, his comments on Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Occupied Palestinian Territory, crackdown by the authorities of the West Bank and in Gaza, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Uganda, Burundi, Mali, , Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo etc. can be expected from any High Commissioner.
It is his interventions on the countries which consider themselves as invincible that characterises Zeid. Many considered his previous statements seeking access to both sides of the Line of Actual Control of India and Pakistan as breaking taboos. By announcing today that his Office is undertaking remote monitoring of the human rights situation in Kashmir on both sides of the Line of Control, with a view to making the findings public in the near future, he has set the bar. The flash reports on Myanmar and monitoring of the situation in Venezuela are instructive. Such reports are welcome and within the mandate of the High Commissioner.
In his intervention today, Zeid touched upon all critical issues relating Pakistan and went on to express concerns about Philippines’ President Rodrigues Duterte who regularly sounds like a street thug.
On China, he not only named Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo but also the custodial death of Cao Shunli in 2014 and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche in 2015. He mentioned specific cases of deprivation of liberty on questionable grounds including Wang Quanzhang, Jiang Tianyong, Li Ming-che, Tashi Wangchuk and Liu Xia. This is surely not a precedent from the past.
His statements on the emerging human rights crises like Cambodia and Maldives are extremely relevant.
The High Commissioner also highlighted the systematic silencing of civil society and closure of civic space, under the guise of countering terrorism by Egypt. He equally questioned Bahrain and Iran.
On Latin America, the High Commissioner was on the spot not only on Venezuela but how corruption is deeply embedded in all level of governance in many countries in Latin America including Brazil and Honduras, often linked to organized crime and drug trafficking. In El Salvador, continuing violence in the country between members of powerful gangs and the security forces have given rise to alarming reports of extra-judicial killings.
The Western bloc is seldom mentioned. Today, without reference to the United States, a statement appears inconclusive and High Commissioner Zeid lived upto the task. The High Commissioner expressed concerns over President Donald Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme in six months’ time. The High Commissioner hoped that “Congress will now act to provide former DACA beneficiaries with durable legal status”. In some other era, this statement would have been construed as interference in internal affairs.
The High Commissioner equally flagged off downslide on the rights in Poland, Republic of Moldova, and Hungary.
Teaching ethics to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey
Equally, the High Commissioner commended the positive initiatives such as Constitutional Court to reverse an attempt to expel the head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, the lifting of the State of Emergency in Ethiopia and cooperation between OHCHR and the Government of the Republic of Congo.
His statement on Turkey was classic. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed concerns against the genocide of the Rohingyas. The High Commissioner today reminded Turkey to practice what it preaches. The High Commissioner said, “Concern by Turkey’s leadership for the human rights of the Rohingyas, and others in foreign countries, is deeply welcome. I encourage the Government to exercise the same consideration for the human rights situation within Turkey, which continues to deteriorate. Rights to freedom of expression and information are under relentless pressure, with very large numbers of Turkish journalists, judges, academics, civil servants and human rights defenders arrested and detained, and others dismissed or subjected to intrusive surveillance, censorship, threats and violence. Individuals suspected of connections with non-State-approved religious movements or organisations that are left-wing or focus on Kurdish issues have also been targeted. Many of these measures appear disproportionate and may be arbitrary: the arrests this summer of 10 human rights defenders associated with Amnesty International – charged with aiding an armed terror organisation for participating in a training workshop and conducting human rights work – suggest others may also be faced with abusive procedures. I call on the Government to discontinue these practices, which undermine the vital force of an open, healthy and free society.”
Yet, there are many situations that the High Commissioner did not mention such as repression of the opposition in Bangladesh. Yet, none can accuse the High Commissioner of being biased in any manner or losing sights of not only ongoing violations but equally emerging human rights crises.
Some one inspired by people standing up in defiance of the indefensible seeking justice is a hard act to follow
Unfortunate, as it is – a large majority of the Special Procedures mandate holders of the UN Human Rights Council look a pale shadow of High Commissioner Zeid. There are serious doubts about the competence of a number of special procedure mandate holders. A great many of them also regularly resort to self-censorship as they seek to remain “UN experts for life” – from one mandate to another mandate, or shifting from Treaty Bodies to Special Procedures or vice-versa. Frankly speaking, if one does not make an impact on one mandate, it is unlikely that one would make an impact on any other mandate. If certain mandate holders are repeatedly appointed, there are bound to be legitimate questions about the integrity which are reflected in the conduct of some Special Rapporteurs mandate holders.
When you are “inspired by movements of people standing up in many countries in defiance of the indefensible seeking justice” as Zied said today, it is the conviction and commitment that only matter. It is precisely the reason as to why Commissioner Zeid will be a hard act to follow not only by the forthcoming High Commissioners but by majority special procedures mandate holders.
In the remaining two years of the first term, the world expects High Commissioner Zeid to break more taboos so that the UN can discuss human rights without fear or favour.