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December 21, 2017

Despite Decision to Stand Down, U.N. High Commissioner Can Take Strength from Global Demand for Greater Freedom

The announcement by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Hussein that he will not seek a second four-year term, although expected, is cause for sadness. Zeid has been an energetic High Commissioner willing to speak out on human rights violations by powerful governments, including the United States. As such, he was always unlikely to be re-elected.

Only one of his predecessors has served more than one term, and if the High Commissioner is not annoying influential UN member states with the power to block his re-election, then he is probably not doing his job. Zeid will step down in the summer of 2018.

Over the past year, the High Commissioner had let it be known that he was finding it difficult to fulfill his mandate, feeling increasingly isolated and lacking support from traditional allies of the office in Europe and the United States. The new U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been wary of coming into conflict with major global powers, perhaps recognizing that, in a difficult climate for promoting the universal values that the United Nations stands for, it will be necessary for him to pick his battles.

In these difficult circumstances, Zeid has demonstrated the value an independent high-level official within the U.N. system to champion human rights, a cause that may often show government actions in an unflattering light. At a time when many governments, led by Russia, China, and the United States, are espousing policies that openly flout international human rights standards, it is especially important that the High Commissioner be a principled voice able to condemn violations regardless of how mighty the perpetrator may be.

While Zeid deserves praise for his performance, I have reservations about the tone he has adopted in recent public remarks and in his message announcing his intention not to seek a renewal of his mandate. When so many enemies of human rights in governments, extremist movements and elsewhere are casting doubt on the relevance and validity of universal values, I wonder why the High Commissioner should find it necessary to join in a chorus of gloom, which risks becoming self-fulfilling.

Yes, the struggle for human rights has its enemies, and these days that includes too many governments, which, from their own histories, should know better; but that should not deter or dismay advocates for values that, in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” The stakes are too high and the cost of failure too terrible for human rights activists ever to give in to despondency. In the face of injustice and human-created suffering, we may mourn, and we should feel anger and outrage, but these emotions must spur us to continue the struggle to advance human rights protections to people everywhere.

Even in times when some governments are violating their international obligations and boasting about it, we should recognize that tens of millions of people in those same countries are not in favor of this behavior. They value the rights they have earned through decades of struggle and they will not sit passively as they are taken away.  That is certainly true here in the United States where struggles for women’s rights and against racial discrimination have gained strength in the face of threats from the Trump Administration. In countries around the world, no matter how repressive the governments may be, people want to be free to exercise their basic human rights. Millions are prepared to risk imprisonment or worse to stand up against injustice and repression.

Zeid—and his successor—need not feel isolated. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights reflects the common aspirations of all people for dignity and for “better standards of life in larger freedom.”  Dictators and demagogues rail against these aspirations and the universal values that articulate them.  They have transparent motives for doing so and common methods of sowing fear and division, which must be exposed and resisted.

The struggle for human rights must always be self-critical and reflective, learning lessons from mistakes and failures, but there is no reason for self-doubt in pursuit of a cause which enables people simply to live in dignity as human beings. Governments may retreat from their commitments, but people will not stop pursuing their inalienable rights. That fact alone should encourage the High Commissioner to be the happy warrior for “the highest aspiration of the common people.”