JORDANIAN DIPLOMAT Zeid Raad al-Hussein has spent nearly four years fighting a frustrating battle against genocide, oppression, racism — and the increasing indifference to them among governments. Last week he opened the 37th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, and with the end of his four-year term as high commissioner for human rights in sight, he chose, he said, “to be blunt.” His tough conclusions are worth repeating.
“Today,” Mr. Zeid said, “oppression is fashionable again, the security state is back, and fundamental freedoms are in retreat in every region of the world. Shame is also in retreat. Xenophobes and racists in Europe are casting off any sense of embarrassment.”
Mr. Zeid didn’t shrink from naming the places and people who are violating basic norms. He cited Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who recently said “we did not want our color . . . to be mixed in with others,” and a Polish minister who said Jews were among the perpetrators of the Holocaust. He spoke of “young girls in El Salvador . . . sentenced to 30 years imprisonment for miscarriages”; of the jailing of journalists “in huge numbers” in Turkey and a human rights defender in Bahrain; of people who “can be killed by police with impunity, because they are poor”; and of ethnic Rohingya in Burma, who are “dehumanized, deprived and slaughtered in their homes.”
Of greatest concern to Mr. Zeid are the instances of mass killing that have happened on his watch and that have attracted no meaningful international response. “Eastern Ghouta [and] the other besieged areas in Syria; Ituri and the Kasais in [Congo]; Taiz in Yemen; Burundi; northern Rakhine in Myanmar have become some of the most prolific slaughterhouses of humans in recent times, because not enough was done, early and collectively, to prevent the rising horrors,” Mr. Zeid said. “Time and again, my office and I have brought to the attention of the international community violations of human rights which should have served as a trigger for preventive action. Time and again, there has been minimal action.”
In particular, Mr. Zeid faulted the U.N. Security Council, which has been paralyzed by vetoes from its permanent members — most recently by Russia and China in the case of Syria. “It is they,” Mr. Zeid said, “who must answer before the victims.” He cited a French proposal that would restrict use of the veto in cases that the U.N. secretary-general determines involve genocide, crimes against humanity, or large-scale war crimes. More than 115 countries, including Britain, have backed the idea; China, Russia and the United States have not.
Mr. Zeid’s most important point concerned the larger effect on international order of disregarding atrocities. Countries tend to set aside human rights problems as “too sensitive,” he said, consigning them to the often fruitless sessions of the Human Rights Council. But, he said, “it is the accumulating human rights violations such as these, and not a lack of GDP growth, which will spark the conflicts that can break the world.”
“Why are we doing so little to stop them,” Mr. Zeid asked, “even though we should know how dangerous all of this is?” There is, today, no more relevant question.