Outgoing UN rights chief rails against Security Council veto system

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein alludes to 5 countries’ ability to overturn resolutions in cases involving Israeli military action in West Bank and Gaza

Outgoing United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein reacts during an interview with AFP on August 20, 2018, in his office in Geneva (AFP PHOTO / Fabrice COFFRINI)
Outgoing United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein reacts during an interview with AFP on August 20, 2018, in his office in Geneva (AFP PHOTO / Fabrice COFFRINI)

The outgoing UN human rights chief said Monday that the Security Council’s five permanent members wield too much power at the United Nations, warning the imbalance must change to avert possible “collapse” of the world body “at great cost to the international community.”

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein decried the sense among some at the United Nations that the “pentarchy” of Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States “is running too much of the business.” He was alluding to the countries’ ability to veto resolutions in cases like alleged injustices in Syria’s war or by Israeli forces against Palestinians.

“When they cooperate things can move; when they don’t everything becomes stuck and the organization in general becomes so marginal to the resolution of these sorts of horrific conflicts that we see,” Zeid said. “That has to change: In the end the organization can collapse at great cost to the international community.”

“There is a sense that the permanent five have created a logjam by dint of their proclivity to use the veto, and the paralysis — less so the UK and France — but of course, the US, Russia and China quite frequently,” he told news agency journalists at his lakeside Geneva office as his term nears its end on August 31.

Zeid, a Jordanian prince, did not seek a new four-year term as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has chosen former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to replace Zeid.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a press conference after his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on June 21, 2018. (AFP Photo/Yuri Kadobnov)

In the wide-ranging briefing, Zeid reminisced about late former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and drew distinction between the rights chief’s job and the top UN post — calling the Secretary-General position more about “peace and security” than vocally highlighting rights abuses.

Zeid has drawn plaudits among many human rights advocates for his frankness, but in so doing has ruffled many feathers among many governments, including some of the most powerful ones. He repeated his criticism of US President Trump’s frequent condemnation of journalists and expressed confusion about where the US leader was headed with his policies and the “vision” of some populist European leaders.

“I’m not into making friends with governments,” Zeid said. “But when we feel we need to speak, we will speak.”

Some have suggested that Guterres wanted the rights office to change its tone to avoid losing support from powerful member states.

Zeid said that Guterres only asked him to soften his language once, when he called US President Donald Trump “mean-spirited” after the president first issued the so-called Muslim travel ban shortly after taking office.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a signing ceremony for the ‘John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019’ at Fort Drum, New York, on August 13, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski)

“He said, ‘You know Zeid, we have our problems with the incoming US administration and there may be threats to funding and you may want to use a different set of terms,'” the rights chief said, recalling the conversation with Guterres.

Zeid said he took that as advice “from an old friend.”

“I persisted with the way I believe it needed to be done and he wasn’t insisting that I change,” he added.

Often mild-mannered and eloquent, Zeid bared frustrations about the inability to get authorization for UN rights investigators to visit places like Venezuela or Nicaragua, or the plodding efforts to pass a UN Human Rights Council resolution on countries like war-torn Yemen.

His comments exemplified his call for reforms at a world body whose shortcomings have been exposed over issues like Syria’s devastating 7-1/2-year war and rising nationalism. He also alluded to the lessons of World War II that, he suggested, appeared to be fading with time.

“My sense is the further away we get from those historical and dreadful experiences, the more we tend to play fast and loose with the institutions created to prevent repetition,” he said.

‘Demagogues’ and ‘charlatans’

When he took office in 2014, Zeid recalled, beheadings by the Islamic State group were garnering headlines. Then followed the flood of Syrian migrants into Europe, and a relative rise of right-wing movements there. And many people were blindsided by the fallout on human rights.

But after what he described as a four-year effort to shine a light on violations on each continent, the rights chief also made clear that he was not overly optimistic about the future.

Zeid has relentlessly condemned politicians whom he accuses of stoking ethnic and religious tension to boost their appeal, a list that for him includes Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, among others.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers a speech in front of the building of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest on March 15, 2018, during the official commemoration of the 170th anniversary of the 1848-1849 Hungarian revolution.

His term in office made him realize that “all states are works in progress and one or two generations of reckless politicians can destroy any and every state,” he said, citing the US, Hungary and the right-wing government in Poland.

He said he worried about “the return of the demagogues, half-truths, the charlatans who are peddling fear, stoking xenophobia and using these appalling violent extremists (like the Islamic State group) as a counter-point on which to pivot all that they are doing.”

But, asked to identify the one thing he worried about most, Zeid opted for levity, saying the prospect of being requested “to remain as high commissioner” filled him with fear.

He has called for the job to be restricted to a single term, to ensure that the rights chief avoids making political calculations to secure another four years.

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