Jordan gave the Arab world two reasons to be proud this week. One was the nomination of the film Theeb for an academy award, and the other was the statement to the thirty-first session of the UN Human Rights Council by Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Many people, understandably, are skeptical that an Arab prince could contribute seriously to promoting international human rights protections, given the Arab world’s very poor record in this arena. Nevertheless, I read on and was not disappointed. Prince Zeid’s powerful cry for the countries of the world to work more seriously to implement existing mechanisms to protect all people from abuse and danger included three important elements.
He honestly criticized the stupidity, immorality and futility of xenophobic responses to cross-border flows of refugees; he chided autocratic leaders for their delusional quest for stability by denying their citizens’ basic freedoms and protections; and he ended with an important call to link the Human Rights Council’s work with the UN Security Council, which has the political and, when needed, military enforcement power to make things happen in the world.
He said that severe and increasing violations of fundamental rights and principles signal “a coming earthquake,” are, “generated by poor decisions, unprincipled and often criminal actions, and narrow, short-term, over-simplified approaches to complex questions,” reflecting, “resurgent broad-based malice, irresponsibility and sometimes eye-watering stupidity.”
These trends lead to greater and greater pressures that will be released one day, “as a colossus of violence and death.” Well, perhaps we already witness now previews of the “colossus of violence and death,” especially in the Arab World, where rampant human rights denials underpin poor governance, systematic exploitation of citizens, and large-scale destruction and suffering. The resulting millions—millions, not thousands—of helpless civilians fleeing desperately to find basic protections and life needs today. The fleeing refugees dying at sea or being tear gassed at European borders are the trailers for a horror film that will come to our local cinema next year.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein lamented that, “Instead of taking a reasoned and cooperative approach to settling challenges—including the rise of violent extremism, the growing number of armed conflicts, and the movement of people seeking safety—many leaders are pandering to a simplistic nationalism… that fans a rising wind of prejudice and fear. This bid to find unilateral quick fixes for issues that have broad roots is not only unprincipled, it is illusory—and it contributes to great suffering and escalating disarray.”
The shocking violations of existing human rights and international humanitarian law provisions with complete impunity include acts like starvation sieges, and bombing schools, religious sites and hospitals due to either deliberate targeting or systemic incompetence, he noted.
Speaking of the obstacles to refugees fleeing for safety, he said that, “To keep building higher walls against the flight of these desperate people is an act of cruelty and a delusion,” adding that, “Anti-immigrant and anti-minority rhetoric scar societies (… and) result in divisions that cut deep.”
He specifically criticized “leaders who express, or ignite, waves of hate speech—hate speech against migrants, and specific ethnic and religious groups” that sets off shock-waves that will lead to violence. He did not spare governments that deny their own people basic rights, noting that, “When governments clamp down against grassroots activists, journalists and political opponents—or scrap the guarantees of an independent judiciary—they are not acting to halt violent extremism. They are dismantling the integrity of their societies and the people’s trust and respect for fundamental institutions. Crushing human freedoms will not protect us from terrorism. It creates dangerous divisions and grievances that will lead to more violence.”
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein courageously urged policy-makers to protect and deploy existing human rights values that, “work to uproot the underpinning factors of violent extremism,” which he said included persistent discrimination, corruption, poor governance, inadequate schools and economic structures, and failures to establish a sense of belonging and full citizen participation in society.
Rather than cracking down on citizen activism, he reminded governments that, “Justice and human rights are the essential foundation of loyalty. They are what is needed.”
He ended by reminding the perpetrators of criminal and unjust behavior that, “The perpetrators of severe violations of this [human rights protections] order must know that they will, at the first occasion, be sanctioned to the full extent of the law.”
This commitment to holding accountable criminal behavior by governments and non-state actors is probably the single most important priority for our international order today, due to violations by both Third World dictators and Western, Eastern and other governments. I hope that wise and powerful leaders around the world will now figure out how to make that happen, whether through the Security Council or any other mechanism. If they don’t, they should prepare a plan B for their own societies, when the colossus of violence and death comes to their local theater.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global