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UN Human-Rights Chief Warns of a ‘Political Earthquake’ of Populism


The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, told an audience in Washington recently, “Time and again, humanity has lost its bearings on the back of half-truths and lies.” JEAN-MARC FERRE/UN PHOTO

In a bold excoriation of populist and nationalist movements now gripping many nations, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights told an audience of foreign policy experts, human-rights advocates and students of diplomacy in Washington, D.C., this week that the drive toward “protectionism, unilateralism and the proclamations of national or religious purity” is “deeply alarming.”

While the high commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, did not mention Donald Trump by name — though he did call out Marine Le Pen, whose far-right party in France has been leading polls ahead of an election on April 23 — it was evident that Zeid’s remarks, made on Feb. 16, were also intended for the Trump administration, with its rejection of international agreements and a virtual crusade against Muslims.

“A new era is unfolding before us,” Zeid said. “We find ourselves in a political earthquake zone. To many of us, it appears the international system could become dangerously unstable. Fresh shocks are opening up, unsuspected fault lines. Weight-bearing pillars are in danger of collapse.”

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The high commissioner, a former Jordanian ambassador to the United States and to the UN and a leader in the creation of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, credited the administration of Barack Obama and his ambassador in Geneva, Keith Harper, with playing constructive leadership roles in the UN Human Rights Council. He also expressed concern that the US could desert the council under conservative Republican domination.

Ambassador Nikki Haley, the Trump administration’s envoy to the UN in New York, put the Human Rights Council at the top of her list of UN targets during her confirmation hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January.

“You really have to question what is the goal of the Human Rights Council when they allow Cuba and China to serve on those,” she told senators. “They basically are protecting their own interests while they’re going after other countries to make sure that they give them a hard time. Do we want to be part of that? Do we want to leverage funding for that, and say that we don’t want to do that?”

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After Zeid’s speech, in a conversation with the audience led by a former State Department official, Bathsheba Crocker, he said: “It would be a gaping hole if the US were to disengage from the human rights machinery. We’ve heard very clearly from President Xi Jinping, in Geneva, that the Chinese government is willing to step up and take a leadership role in the UN — clearly on peace and security and on the development side.

“But what then of the human rights pillar at the UN? How would China engage with this?” he asked. With Russia another “caustic” player and the European powers too distracted with the crisis in the European Union, he added. “One hopes that the administration would take a very careful look at this, and realize that human rights are not some tangential boutique sort of issue on the side, like some garnish on a plate, but are absolutely fundamental to the maintenance of peace and security and some sort of world order.”

Zeid, a graduate of Johns Hopkins and Cambridge universities, was appointed by Ban Ki-moon, former UN secretary-general. Zeid is the first Muslim and first Arab to hold the position. He spoke in Washington at the US Institute of Peace, where he received the Trainor Award for distinction in the conduct of diplomacy from Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.

In his formal address, the high commissioner described a world replete with crises — political, humanitarian and natural. “It is difficult to overstate the gravity of these and other crises which we currently face,” he said. “Yet rather than dealing with them, we seem to be turning away and looking inwards.

“Today’s nationalists seem to deliberately feed off the threat of terrorism,” he said, adding that the blanket accusations against Muslims, who are the overwhelming majority of Islamic terrorists’ victims, is not the answer. “Imprecision can be a blunt and terrible instrument. When victims are dishonored by those who exploit their very real suffering for political purpose, is that not imprecision in its most cynical form?

“Tragically, it also remains very much part of the political seducers’ art,” he said. “They then claim license to do whatever is necessary lawfully or otherwise to correct those grievances. An entire community is identified as the source, the enemy — an enemy stripped of individuality — a group which thinks and plots as one.

“Time and again, humanity has lost its bearings on the back of half-truths and lies, and the results have been disastrous,” he said, looking back over the past methods of nationalist, fascist and racist movements to scapegoat perceived enemies.

“The essential cohesion at the heart of every social fabric, once textured and fluid, is torn apart and replaced by sharp social divisions. That political leaders still do so today in countries where the lessons of two world wars should have been fully absorbed is stupefying.”


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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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