by Matt Raab
The Institute for the Study of Diplomacy (ISD) honored United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein as the 2017 recipient of the Raymond ‘Jit’ Trainor Award for Excellence in the Conduct of Diplomacy. In a ceremony and lecture at the United States Institute for Peace (USIP), the High Commissioner joined the ranks of a distinguished cohort of recipients, including Thomas Pickering, Kofi Annan, John Negroponte, and, most recently, Dr. Ernest Moniz, the former U.S. Secretary of Energy and 2016 recipient.
Ambassador Barbara Bodine, director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, introduced the speaker and award at USIP’s downtown-DC headquarters February 16.
Bodine noted that the Trainor Award is “one of the very few if only that is given in recognition for excellence in the conduct of diplomacy. We are deeply honored that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has agreed to accept this award.”
Zeid, who has held his current position since 2014, is a career Jordanian diplomat who previously served as his country’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations (2000-07, 2010-14) and Jordan’s Ambassador to the United States (2007-10). His extensive diplomatic career includes contributions to peacekeeping efforts in former Yugoslavia, leadership in the drafting of the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court (ICC), and a term as the first president of the Assembly of State Parties to the Rome Statute.
“The Impossible Diplomacy”: Challenges to a Rights Based International Order
In his lecture, titled “The Impossible Diplomacy of Human Rights,” Zeid detailed the challenges and opportunities facing progress and prosperity in a human rights-respecting, stable international system. He spoke from both his perspective as the United Nation’s senior authority on human rights, as well as in the context of domestic and international political currents around the world.
“A new era is unfolding before us,” Zeid said in his opening remarks. “We find ourselves in a political earthquake zone. To many of us it appears the international system could become dangerously unstable. Fresh shocks are opening up unsuspected fault-lines, weight-bearing pillars are in danger of collapse.”
Zeid specifically cited pressing crises including ongoing wars and civil conflicts as well as drought in southern Africa. These issues are made all the more urgent by a trend towards internally focused policies in countries around the world.
“Rather than dealing with [these crises], we seem to be turning away and looking inwards,” Zeid said. “These and other emergencies are accompanied by an intensifying breakdown in the basic consensus, embedded in key international and regional institutions, a consensus which has for decades maintained, supported and regulated the relations between states and their behavior.”
Examples of this rising nationalism include the rhetoric of the right-wing National Front party and their presidential candidate Marine Le Pen in France, which Zeid cited as particularly troubling. He expressed concern over “the growing drive to protectionism, unilateralism, proclamations of national or religious purity, and rejection of what some have taken to calling ‘so-called international law,’” labeling these dynamics a “wanton threat to the balance of human progress achieved over the past 70 years including the evident and immense benefits brought about by international law.”
Zeid’s arguments, however, were not designed to discredit the concerns that were driving voters towards the enabling of these troubling trends. Rather, he pushed against the “imprecision” of leaders who harnessed insecurities and prejudices to propel their agendas.
“Imprecision can be a blunt and terrible instrument,” Zeid said. “When victims are dishonored by those who exploit their very real suffering for political purpose, is that not imprecision in its most cynical form?”
Moving forward, then, Zeid sees potential, and continued progress–dependent on the recognition of the value of human rights and their spirited defense.
“Our work changes not just laws, but lives. It protects the most vulnerable, and inspires and supports activists struggling in dangerous conditions for the rights of the people to have a voice in their own affairs,” Zeid said. “These activists are the true forces of stability. We have no choice. There is simply no alternative – we must continue our work, if human life and well-being are to be maintained.”
Is this impossibly complex job becoming futile? Emphatically not.
Defending Human Rights, Defending the Future
Zeid concluded his remarks with a call to action, mindful of the past and with an eye to the future.
“We need – all of us – to defend international law — international refugee law, international human rights law, international humanitarian law, international criminal law,” he said. “For they – and the institutions that uphold them – are the very distillation and sum of human experience.”
Ultimately, Zeid concluded, human rights are a common thread linking all of humanity, and discouraging trends should not be taken as definitive.
“We make mistakes, we stumble; we forget core truths,” he said. “… Sometimes we do falter –the political and economic elites in particular.”
The rules and norms provided by human rights, however, can provide safety and structure against those inevitable diversions.
“I want, ladies and gentlemen, to belong to a rights based-movement of human beings,” Zeid said. “One that cares for everyone, stands up for everyone, and will march whenever and wherever it is needed.”
Eclipsing all the other identities I may have, I want to feel human first–human first. I want you to feel this too. Please join me.
High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein is the 37th recipient of the Raymond ‘Jit’ Trainor Award, established in 1978 to honor the memory of the celebrated former registrar of the School of Foreign Service. For more information on the award and previous recipients, click here.