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Podcast / April 15 2020

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein: In Defense of Human Rights

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The public’s trust in governments is at an all-time low. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein is a veteran diplomat and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. He talks with host Nelufar Hedayat about standing up to governments — and the enemies he made along the way.

Full transcript

Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.



This is Course Correction from Doha Debates. I’m Nelufar Hedayat. Each episode we’ll look at one big global issue…and meet the people who are actively working to fix it.

We’re not just a podcast. We also put on a series of live debates, with speakers who have inspiring ideas about how to change the world.

Our debates are special because we design them to build bridges between experts rather than to pit them against each other. We look for what connects us rather than what separates us. And we focus on the solutions.

In a live debate at the Paris Peace Forum last November, we discussed the growing distrust in governments.

People’s trust in their leaders is at an all-time low. Recent research tells us that three-quarters of the world’s governments are mistrusted by their own citizens. From the U.S., France, Hong Kong, Iran, Lebanon, to Algeria — people all over the world say they want new leaders and new forms of leadership. So our debate question was whether it’s possible to rebuild trust in existing government systems. Or should we consider a new decentralized digital democracy?

Each of our participants had their own take.



And I believe that societies can thrive with low levels of trust, as long as governments engage in new ways of listening to the people and then, of course, act on what they say.


Blockchain technology has an extraordinary promise to eliminate middlemen that are gerrymandering trust out of the hands of individuals who need to own their own sovereign rights.


All of us agree that we need better political leadership globally. All of us. But wouldn’t this be achieved if the young go out to vote?

NELUFAR: That last speaker was Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. He’s a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. He’s also a founder of the International Criminal Court and a veteran diplomat. He’s spent his career focusing on the relationship between governments and their people — especially what happens when these relationships go wrong.

I sat down to talk with him before the debate, and just a heads-up, we dealt with some pretty brutal events, including war crimes. And there are cuss words right from the start. If either of those is challenging for you, this may be one to skip.

NELUFAR: I pulled up just some quotes from, from around the world about you. Duterte from the Philippines called you “son of a whore.”


My mother was very upset.

NELUFAR: I bet. The North Korean said that you are a “plot-breeding scandalmonger.” The Venezuelan said you are “a resounding failure.” The Chinese think you’re disgraceful. The Russian ambassador dismissed you, I mean, completely.

ZEID: He said I had a Messiah complex? And I was mad or something.

NELUFAR: And then he added that you’re a “kamikaze” and “unhinged.”

ZEID: Yeah.

NELUFAR: Are you any of those things?

ZEID: I’m probably all of them. No, I wouldn’t say “son of a whore.” Look, you know, you grow accustomed to it.

NELUFAR: I’ve done this for 11 years. Listen, I’ve never seen — the reactions you invoke, universally, around the globe, it’s astonishing. Why are they so scared of you?

ZEID: You see what we are asking is a very basic question. We’re actually questioning whether you’re serving your people or not. Are you discriminating against your people? Are you depriving them, or you’re not? And they don’t like it.

If they believe that what we were saying were lies, let us have a look. What are you hiding? Why don’t you let us in and do an investigation? And so of course then they go on the offensive. As a predecessor of mine said, when you’re in that space between the government and its people, you’re in a very sensitive space.

To me, it didn’t really matter that they said all of this, because on the other hand, we got, I got, lots of letters from civil society actors, people that we freed from detention, people that we’d helped recover from torture. So it was always, I believe, a net gain for us.

NELUFAR: After your first term as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, when that ended, you said, quote, “To be reelected in my job would be to fail.”

ZEID: Yes. You always, I think, when you deal with these issues, there is so much pressure, and it’s not the pressure from governments. I mean, I can — I easily deal with that. It’s the pressure from victims, who expect so much. And if you don’t feel you can deliver — you try everything. I do interviews like this, press conferences, speeches, reports, and yet you know, often it’s not going to bring someone back from the dead. It’s not going to bring someone out of an IDP camp or refugee camp.

And so there is always a questioning, whether or not you’re a fraud, to a certain extent. People put their trust in you and you just simply can’t deliver and that pressure is absolutely enormous.

NELUFAR: You — was Yugoslavia the first time you went out in the field to witness a lot of these things on behalf of the UN?

ZEID: Yeah, it was my first experience with the UN and I was 30 years old. And it was the definitive, the key moment in my life, I think, yeah.

NELUFAR: I think I read somewhere that you saw the skull of a small child as a, as a trophy on the car of a local warlord or whoever. As I sit and speak to you now, I can feel it affects you quite a lot. Why, why was that moment so important to you, and what did you learn in that moment that you carry through with you till today?

ZEID: Well, it’s the extremes of violence that exist, putting the head of the child on the bonnet of the car, and then putting a UN helmet over it. And he drove up next to us, and we were heading down to Sarajevo from Pale, this is at the close of 1994. It was one of these — so there were quite a few moments like that, and you realize that much as we can celebrate what it is that we achieve as humanity, you know, there’s still a beast that lie within us. And one of the questions I will say to my law students — actually, the first question I would say to my law students — is, “Why do you think we need law? Why do we need law?”

And they will look at me, sort of as you’re looking at me now. And I say, because if we don’t encage ourselves in law, we know what we’re capable of doing. You just weaken the bars a little bit. We will venture out a little bit. We are utterly capable of destroying ourselves. And that’s why we need law. And so there is much to celebrate about us, but there’s much to be frightened about the human being.

NELUFAR: You’ve seen some of the worst atrocities that humanity’s perpetrated against itself in the last 20 years, 30 years. Are you despondent about what we’re able to do and what we’re able to achieve?

ZEID: Well, I think, you know, there are three conditions that I would use when I visited a country. I would say to myself, “Does this country suffer from structural discrimination? Is there a particular group, minority, under enormous pressure? Are they then deprived of basic social and legal protections and services on the back of that? And does the system run on fear?” And if you ticked off all three, then you’re in a highly repressive state. And you know, when you look around the world, they’re not many countries that have pristine records. I don’t — actually, I can’t think of one.

NELUFAR: You’ve often spoken about the need to make sure that all nations are judged by the same standards, whether they’re African nations or Arab nations, who are often almost treated differently in geopolitical circumstances — “Well, you know, they do things differently in those, in those countries, or in those nations.” How important is it to treat Arab nations to the same standards that we will hold any developed Western country?

ZEID: No, I mean, we, we didn’t discriminate between any particular — I mean, by the time I finished my, my particular post, I think there was hardly a single country which we hadn’t commented on, in terms of the, the deficit when it came to its own rights record.

And we, we, you know — when you look at the UN more generally, by and large, most of the UN focuses on the global south, and most of it’s in Africa, MENA region, peace and security development, humanitarian, right, parts of Asia — and nothing in America. But the human rights is a total perspective, and we spent just as much time looking at the global north as we did the global south, and we didn’t exclude any country, you know, countries that otherwise, you know, will intimidate the international organizations. We didn’t pull our punches with any particular country —

NELUFAR: But do you think that —

ZEID: — and I didn’t take a different perspective regarding the Arab countries, as opposed to any others.

NELUFAR: But do you think that globally, people do have a sense of exceptionalism when it comes to treating Arab nations? Like, well, you know, because they are so important in terms of the resources that they offer to the planet. In a way, we have this exceptionalism. “Well they do things differently over there,” and they’re let off.

ZEID: Well, there is a category of countries that the UN traditionally is sort of intimidated by — you know, Venezuela, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Turkey. And then the — some of the superpowers as well — and the U.S. — tend to intimidate the rest of the international community and no one dare say anything. And for, for that reason, you know, we went for so many years in the UN without having a report on the situation in Kashmir, until my office produced the report on it.

NELUFAR: But that, the line between those extremes and this periphery seems to be bridging in the last sort of five or six years. You’ve got Duterte out in the far East, you’ve got Geert Wilders in Europe and you’ve got Donald Trump over in the United States. Almost that they speak in unison, that they’re evoking the same sorts of divisive language —

ZEID: Well, they’re polarizing.


ZEID: There was a method to the way in which chauvinistic nationalisms were manipulated in the early 20th century. And I often speak about Karl Lueger, the infamous mayor of Vienna, very sophisticated mayor, who basically took the anti-Semitism present in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and turned it into much more virulent form, because it yielded so much political dividend for him and he couldn’t resist it. And third rate politicians suddenly are elected into office with 55 percent of the vote because they knew that if you can attack a particular group, polarize a society, it does work. You’re playing on people’s emotions, you create a sort of — the reptilian part of the human brain advances.

NELUFAR: We don’t seem to be just losing trust in national leaders, we seem to be losing faith in each other.

ZEID: No, of course. I mean, Karl Lueger did the same. He talked about the — he argued in defense of the small man, you know, the man who was lost in the industrial revolution. And it was a transformation akin to what we’re seeing now. And people were losing their jobs, people were moving into cities. They were living in sort of miserable parts of cities and he aspired to speak on their behalf, but he was weaponizing their anger and directing it against a certain population. Instead of saying that these are structural issues, we have to look back at the records of previous governments. We have to see where we’ve defaulted, you know —

NELUFAR: While we were talking, I couldn’t help but think about one city that I had in mind. The birthplace of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. If you ever hear someone tell you they’re going to Davos, it’s shorthand for, “I’m so well connected, I’m in the elite group of world leaders and business folk, and each year we all get together to plan what’s on the world’s agenda.” I had to ask him about Davos.

NELUFAR: Would you ever speak at it?

ZEID: I have spoken at it.

NELUFAR: Do you, do you like it? Do you think it’s a —

ZEID: I never was comfortable there.


ZEID: Because I felt a significant number of the people attending should be in prison. Given what they’ve done to their own people, it always made me feel uncomfortable. I said to my colleagues, “Please, don’t — ” There was a particular lunch that I didn’t like to go to every year because they always seem to put me next to some war criminal. And I said, “I just don’t want to go.” And they said, they said, “No, no, no. You know, this year we’ve made sure you’re going to be sitting — ” And they sat me next to someone I indicted by the ICC. And I, you know, so I am never comfortable. Yeah.

NELUFAR: You, I mean, you helped establish the ICC, the International Criminal Court, you’re there at the UN, you know, the chief of the Human Rights Division. How does it feel to be such an outsider on the inside?

ZEID: Well, I don’t see myself — you know, I don’t categorize myself like that.

I just, whenever I was given a job, I tried to do the best job I could do. And part of it, I think, was stimulated by what I saw in former Yugoslavia because you see where hatreds take you.

Why do we not just see humans as humans with views and, and basically make decisions about them on the basis of their conduct. Right? And we sort of all float into this categorization, which is in part, you know, what leads to stereotyping and bigotry and prejudice and so forth.

NELFUAR: What does your former employer, the UN, what position does it hold in trying to rebuild this trust that people from all over the global south — I’m from Afghanistan, I was born in Kabul — we don’t have much faith in UN peacekeepers or ISAF or the international goodwill that seems to flow through our nation. I wonder like what, what —

ZEID: Well, the UN — I’ve always said the UN is as great or as pathetic as the rest of the world is out there. The UN is just a reflection of the rest of the world. If the, if the world is in a pathetic state, the UN is in a pathetic state. The —

NELUFAR: Is it in a pathetic state?

ZEID: Yes, it’s in a pathetic state. Why is — why should the UN be seen as anything different? It’s comprised of 193 governments that make up the world. Right? So why, why should they be any better on the inside if they’re, if they’re, you know, pathetic on the outside. And or in a, conversely, if the, you see a world that’s improving where you see greater respect for human rights, greater democracy, you’ll see a better UN, right? And if it’s not working, it’s just an example of what is outside. So we have to try and make it work. We have to try and make the world work.

My great hope is, at grassroots level, real leadership — courageous, selfless people willing to sacrifice that first instinct of us human beings, which is the instinct of self-preservation — and they were willing to overcome this for the sake of advancing the rights of people. And that gave me lots of — completely the opposite of your typical politician in many countries.


ZEID: And that’s where we have hope. And that’s where I saw, you know, humanity at its best.

NELUFAR: I wanted to take a second and talk about your daughter.

ZEID: Yeah!

NELUFAR: She’s a massive climate change activist or climate crisis activist. I saw your Twitter — you’re a proud dad! Like you’re there supporting her civil disobedience. How important is the younger generation? How much must we rely on them, on the younger folk, to try and course correct for the direction we’re into now?

ZEID: It’s their century. I mean, they almost have no choice, right? It’s their century and they have to step in and they have to assert themselves. Because we will depart soon, and they’re going to be left with these colossal, colossal problems. I mean, enormous problems.


ZEID: And you — one can never belittle the difficulty.

NELUFAR: Is she hopeful for her future?

ZEID: Well, she’s fighting for it. And she’s very activist, and she’s out protesting all the time and writing letters. And we, I mean, we’re very proud of her. So long as the activism is directed out of the house, not into the house.


ZEID: It’s tough for us!

NELUFAR: Is she “OK Boomer”ing you?

ZEID: Yeah, no, she’s constantly accusing us of this or that. And sometimes she says, “I want to have my lawyer with me. I’m looking to sit here and argue with you.” So she’s very tough.

NELUFAR: Good. Can rely on her to keep you in check.


NELUFAR: Lots of food for thought there. That is all the show we have today. To watch the full live debate, go to YouTube and search for “Doha Debates Loss of Trust.” You can see all the speakers’ proposed solutions, and tell me what you think. I want to hear from you. Tweet us at @DohaDebates. Or get in touch with me at @nelufar.


Course Correction is written and hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. The show is produced by Doha Debates and Transmitter Media. Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation. Special thanks to our team at Doha Debates — Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. See you soon.