Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein took office in September 2014 as the seventh UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a post established by the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights as the principal human rights official in the UN system. His office has some 1100 staff members based in Geneva, New York and in 13 country offices and 13 regional offices or centers around the world. 700 more international human rights officers serve in UN peace missions or political offices.

While serving variously as Jordan’s Ambassador to the UN, the United States and Mexico during the years 1996-2014, Zeid was a leader in many international efforts to advance human rights, including as President of the Assembly of State Parties of the International Criminal Court, and Chair the Consultative Committee for the United Nations Development Fund for Women. He holds a PhD from Cambridge University.

EVENT SUMMARY – Challenges to Human Rights in 2015 and Beyond – Roosevelt House Lecture by Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

The following is the text of a lecture entitled “Challenges to Human Rights in 2015 and Beyond” – delivered by Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, New York on 19 October 2015.

Colleagues, Friends,

I am honoured to be invited to speak in this house, a place so intimate with the lives of a couple who, singly and together, shifted the world into a trajectory which is as necessary today to human survival it was seven decades ago – perhaps even more so.  For the crises scuttling the world at present, growing in number by the month and resistant – it would appear – to resolution, throw up images reminiscent of the past: wars unabated; extremist ideologies radiating outwards; greed, racism and mean-spiritedness.   Intolerance is spreading worldwide and everywhere anxieties are deepening.

Should all of this not have been extinguished from the human experience long ago?  How is it they remain, menacingly persistent.  How is it human stupidity can be so resilient?  How can it be so?  Again and again, we see governments resort to the narrow approach, the security paradigm only, the parochial interest. The core message that was scripted by the Franklin and Eleanor at the close of their lives must be upheld again – vigorously. It is therefore highly appropriate we are here this evening at the Public Policy Institute at Hunter College.

47-49 East 65th Street, including on this very floor, is where Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that giant leader of the twentieth century, learned to stand and walk again after he was first stricken from polio; always in pain, always aided by braces and people, but never defeated. And it is where, together with Eleanor, he formulated his thoughts on how best he could serve the individual, the US public, and the broader world.

Eleanor, who was also among the most inspiring Americans of the 20th century, raised their six children here, and developed her powerful ideas about the need to put an end to discrimination and fight for social justice.

No couple in recent history has created a legacy so deeply beneficial, for so many people.

For a year now, I have been leading the Human Rights Office of the United Nations, which represents, to me, the very combination, the fusion, of the two goals to which those two people dedicated their later years.

At the end of his life FDR was driven, above all, by the urgent task of winning the Second World War, but also by the need to build “an abiding peace”, in which nations would “learn to walk in a new atmosphere of freedom.” On the morning of the day he suffered a fatal cerebral haemorrhage, he was working on the speech he would have delivered to the San Francisco Conference creating the United Nations.  So he may have been thinking of the global organization about to be established even as he died.

And Eleanor, that tireless campaigner – following her husband’s death, she proved so steely and skilled a tactician and thinker that she was chosen unanimously by the UN’s delegates to chair the Drafting Committee which wrote the deeply resonant words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights”. Like the UN itself, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which to me is the most powerful and lovely of the many international agreements of the past century – was a point by point response to the horrors of the two world wars, rights arising out of beliefs drawn from many cultures, in the minds of many women and men.  It laid out, for the first time, the resources and freedoms that every State must give its people; recognizing, much more clearly than ever before, that it is human rights and justice that build peace; and that Governments that owe service to their people – not the other way round.

And this preservation of freedom, which Eleanor Roosevelt called “the basic problem confronting the world today”, is what I am here to discuss. This very simple idea, and incredibly complex process, of preventing war and suffering by promoting the universal rights of all human beings.

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms,” FDR wrote, in what is perhaps the greatest speech of his career. “The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want — which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear — which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbour — anywhere in the world.”

He continued, “That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb. To that new order we oppose the greater conception — the moral order. A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear.”

He gave that speech in 1941, to Congress, at a turning point in history. A choice with profound implications lay before this country, and before the world.

Imagine, for a moment, a world fully without human rights at all.  It is a world of enslavement, violence and tyranny, ruled by cruelty, deprivation and untimely death. Conflict is everywhere; discrimination; hatred – it is an appalling world, and it is one which endangers the lives, safety and happiness of all of us, and of our children.

For human security is indivisible.  There is no such a thing as a small, faraway conflict. Crises generate spill-over, and if they go unchecked, they threaten us all with the world of war.  In a very real sense, FDR and Eleanor, helped to lead us all out of that world.

In the months and years after FDR’s death, States shaped the United Nations, and wrote binding laws and agreed to be governed by them, so that they would form a web of protection from the threats of genocide and warfare.  Human rights are the values at the core of that system, and they are what has given it its enduring strength – because they do prevent conflict, and they build societies that are resilient and stable.

Where humanity ceases to protect human rights, the system built to ward off chaos and violence begins to crumble; the chain of human security is broken; and the danger of devastating conflict becomes real.

Today we are living through a time of tremendous turmoil.  For seventy years, we have witnessed the most appalling genocides and stammering, vicious, conflicts, and yet a world war was prevented and, in that context only, a long peace, a global peace, has endured.  But will it last and is it wilting?  Now, as the generation that lived through the Second World War is departing, its lessons are be dimming in the minds of many men and women, and this creates a grave and urgent threat to the lives of us all.

Across the globe, and particularly in the Middle East, we face massive emergencies, which are generating a terrible exodus of suffering human beings. And yet our humanitarian operations go unfunded – virtually guaranteeing that this suffering will cascade into more lives and more countries.

Nightmarish new violent extremist groups seek to exterminate all those who dissent from their harsh and narrow world view. And yet despite their brutality – and even, perhaps, because of their brutality – they continue to attract new recruits.

Several States seem to be undergoing almost a geopolitical version of nuclear fission, collapsing inwards and fragmenting into defensive, hostile communities.

We are dealing with multiple failed States; an escalating number of murderous internal wars; the spectre of new proxy wars, even among nuclear powers – and also, as the Secretary General recently told the Security Council, “the silent crises – grinding poverty, hunger, inequality, discrimination and other threats to people’s lives and dignity.”

And all of these are nesting grounds for more violent extremism, more conflict, and even greater movements of frightened and suffering people.

What would Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt have done? I think they might have told us this landscape demonstrates the disasters that occur when human rights are ground down by neglect and contempt. They would have pointed out that these crises, all of them, were eminently, entirely preventable. And they would have told us that with work – a great deal of dedicated work – they can be solved.

Let me say that again: solved.  It may not seem so, amid the tumult and atrocities of world events, but in the majority of countries, internal disputes are resolved or at least managed free of violence well before they reach boiling point. Or, after local conflicts, violent or otherwise, have broken out, they are mediated successfully, and brought under control.

Reconciliation, although difficult to achieve permanently, can still be forged to a semi-durable state.  To take one well-known example, intervention by the United Nations helped to end 300 years of apartheid and a bitter, long-running war, now replaced with democratic institutions in South Africa.  Columbia is a contemporary example where resolution is underway today, and it is working; a long war of fifty-one years is being brought to a close, and where just a few years ago there was violence and brutal repression, there is now dialogue, creative thinking even, to solve the grievances of the people.

The effort to address such crises is long-term and incremental.  But possible, of course, although it will always be eye-watering in its difficulty.  Better therefore to stunt a conflict before it even emerges.  This involves, firstly, reading the cipher of subtle and often not so ambiguous, warnings as they accumulate.  Patterns of human rights violations, including discrimination against minorities and sexual violence, will often emit flares of potentially escalating danger.

Many of my staff work on monitoring – including, currently, our support for the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, and fact-finding missions and reports on the ISIL-controlled areas of Iraq; in Eritrea; in Yemen; in Ukraine; and across the region that has been under attack by Boko Haram.

But this work is also going on in numerous situations that are not – not yet – fully formed crises.  If only we can intervene at such time, with the right exertion of pressure, forceful and fair, undeterred by political or economic retaliation or intimidation, undeterred by misused notions of sovereignty, and false arguments, and directed toward encouraging or enforcing a greater regard for human rights, the risk of deepening crisis may dissipate.

While easy to utter, this can be difficult in the extreme to achieve.  We, and others, have long rung alarm bells regarding Burundi for example, in noting the increasing violations of human rights at the close of 2013 and then throughout 2014.   And to little effect unfortunately, as the country continues to stagger from one crisis to another.  So we must re-think how to best achieve a desired result, but we also know this: the answer still lies within the algorithm of prevention, although it needs further still most precise study and reflection.

We are also closely watching other situations, where discrimination against specific minorities has become so harsh that conflict would seem inevitable.  These are places where the corruption of officials so burdens the people, and poverty and deprivation bite so deeply, that their only hope for a life of dignity may be revolt.  And yet, as my friend Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, once remarked to me, yes but not always.  On occasion, rather than react forcefully, a population may also come to suffer from a sort of mass depression if you will, and the people just leave.  Where the people only want to avoid and fear any contact with their government, because law-enforcement is arbitrary and brutal, and the rule of law is skewed to those in power.  Places where fundamental human rights are wronged.

The specifics of each situation are, of course, unique. But in every case the crucial element is to re-establish a respect for human rights, which are at the core of development and peace. The right to express dissent or criticism.  The right to peaceful assembly.  Freedom from torture and ill-treatment. The right to decent public services, such as education and health-care. The right to development.  The right to fair trial, under an impartial rule of law.  Freedom from any form of discrimination. The peaceful resolution of disputes, and in the case of conflict, due protection for civilians and protected locations stipulated by international law.

These are not just lofty ideals or inspiring bumper stickers: they are the factors that generate durable solutions to turmoil. And they can be achieved, through continued resonant and loud public advocacy, as well as by taking hundreds of detailed and practical steps.

For example, in the 64 field presences of the UN Human Rights Office, my staff spend a significant portion of their time on training – for government officials, for members of security and police forces, and for civil society groups. How to question people without using torture: this in itself is a mind-bending advance in many countries. How to manage peaceful protests without violence.  How to ensure that minorities can raise their voices and participate fully in the life of a nation.  How to ensure that women – and other discriminated groups – can claim their rights from judicial systems that continue to be operated, in majority, by men.

How to drive real, long-term economic progress by providing opportunities and resources to all members of society. And increasingly, why and how States need to enable a free press and a vigorous civil society, including the participation of women, minorities and youth.

For many governments today, facing very real and dangerous security threats, operate under the profoundly erroneous impression that mass surveillance, repression of dissent, discriminatory policing, crackdowns, torture, abusive prosecutions, widespread use of the death penalty and ever-larger prisons will defeat violent extremism. But this, if you will permit me to quote a popular song of the 1980s, is like putting out fire with gasoline.  It feeds antagonism and resentment. The strongest and most durable antidote against violent extremism is public confidence and the rule of law.

And so we work to strengthen the laws and institutions that should protect rights, including courts, parliaments, regional councils, schools and community groups – not only because that is right, but also because it builds stability. A stable country is one where the people trust the government and each other. Without the rule of law, due process, and respect for human rights, there can be no long-term security, or development, of any meaningful kind.

This prevention work that we do, often in dangerous and challenging circumstances, is not just relevant – it is effective, and it is massively cost-effective.

Decades ago – and it truly feels like another century – I was a Political Affairs Officer in the UN peace operation in the former Yugoslavia. Kofi Annan was my boss, and he used to say that the most expensive peacekeeping operation costs far less than the cheapest war.  Let me take that thought one step further than Kofi: the most expensive human rights operation costs a tiny fraction of one percent of what a conflict costs – in lives, in refugees, in economic fallout, in impact down through generations, and in regional overspill.

Because when human rights are wronged – when violations and abuses generate explosive crises and conflicts – the cost in bloodshed, wrecked economies and humanitarian aid is titanic. Even one major crisis averted through good human rights groundwork pays back the very modest budgets of the Human Rights Office for decades.

My Office has experience of many such interventions – in Nepal, Guinea, Togo, Guatemala and elsewhere. Sometimes they fail – there are many, disgraceful examples of situations where human rights are deliberately and massively violated, in complete impunity. But many times, these interventions work.  In countries where the authorities recognize that human rights are powerful multipliers of security – countries such as Tunisia, whose achievement of democracy in the face of severe challenges has been striking – we see examples of how human rights build strength.

In the course of our work, I am struck by how often we encounter resistance based on the notion that human rights are not, or should not be, universally binding norms – and this, almost 70 years after States unanimously approved the Universal Declaration. It is an argument based on flawed notions of sovereignty and what are termed “traditional values”. But it is essentially self-serving – a protective shield that is thrown up by perpetrators of human rights violations, or by those who seek to protect those perpetrators.  I seldom hear victims, in many cases once they absorb the terrible reality they are indeed victims, arguing for so-called “traditional values”, or that they should trump the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In reality, respect for human rights is not only a legal and a moral obligation incumbent on all States that participate in the United Nations – it also bestows legitimacy on the leaders who promote that respect. “A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader,” said Eleanor Roosevelt; “a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves” – and we know this to be true.

She also told us, ” The basic problem confronting the world today.. is the preservation of human freedom for the individual, and consequently for the society of which he is a part. We are fighting this battle again, today, as it was fought at the time of the French Revolution and at the time of the American Revolution” – and, I would add, we are still fighting that battle for human freedom, more than half a century later.

Who is this  “we”?  Not only my Office, but we the peoples.  We the peoples who have rights.  You, in this room; your representatives, in government – the we that is universal; acknowledging that, as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt both taught us, deprivation, violence, and the exercise of oppressive and extractive authority threaten peace for us all.  It is by insisting on the dignity and worth of every human being, and securing their rights, that we will thrive, and build an abiding peace – “an abiding peace” words so simple, so powerful, three words so memorably penned by the once owner and resident of this very house on East 65th street, New York city.


Challenges to Human Rights in 2015 and Beyond, a talk by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights | Posted on October 13th, 2015 | Human Rights Program Events, Public Programs