Friday, October 6, 2017

A Conversation with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

By Esther Jung, Global Classrooms DC Program Assistant

On September 18, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a lecture with Carnegie President William J. Burns and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. The discussion focused on the role of national and international leaders promoting humanitarian efforts and human rights and how they can take action in this changing global landscape. High Commissioner Al Hussein addressed a variety of current international issues, and highlighted the significance of humanitarian and human rights activism, especially in the changing political climate in the US.


High Commissioner Al Hussein raised an interesting point by referring to the entire international system as a ‘fading memory.’ While discussing the personal role of the UN High Commissioner and the role of the UN Human Rights Council, High Commissioner emphasized the increasing threats against the international system, whether it would be the security system, the financial system, or the rights-based system. With that being said, many people have addressed the problematic issue of seating documented violators of human rights as members of the Human Rights Council, such as Saudi Arabia (fact check?). 

In response, the UN High Commissioner stressed the importance of bridging a country’s internal beliefs and its external preaching. As we recall the ‘memory’ or antecedents of the system itself, it is important for the international system to continuously use the agency of shame to put pressure on these countries so that they confront these internal and external inconsistencies. 


In one instance, the High Commissioner expressed deep concerns about the changing role of United States in its commitment to the fundamental beliefs of the international system. He referred to US President Donald J. Trump’s criticism against singling out the media and the free press in Arizona shortly after Charlottesville. He warned against singling out the media and individual journalists because it creates a ‘climate of intimidation’ within the country but it also has a precedence for other countries like Cambodia who cited Trump’s comments, following a restriction on their public radio.  

The discussion was followed up with a series of hard-hitting questions about severe human rights violations across the world. During this time, many local news outlets asked questions about Iran, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Burma and Ethiopia. 

As the High Commissioner addressed each question, he continued to refer to the fragility of this world. “As humanity, we have broken the world twice, we can break it again,” he said. As such, the High Commissioner pressed the importance of the UN institution, but also recognized all defenders of human rights across the world who risk everything and symbolize this hope for mankind. 


It was quite an honor and pleasure to have had the opportunity to listen to the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights who spoke with great charisma, honesty and hopefulness for the future. As a student, it inspires me to work harder in hopes to be one of the many defenders of human rights in the future. 


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