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5 things to know about the new High Commissioner’s first speech

NOTE: This guest post was written by Stephanie Siegel. Stephanie is a 2014 graduate of the School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Her specializations include International Law and Human Rights and Latin America and the Caribbean. Her Master’s Research project studied the relationship between economic development and workers’ rights and she has previously done research on intellectual property law for the Chilean Embassy. Stephanie’s passion for social justice has led her to take 8 humanitarian aid trips to Latin America and the Caribbean, at present she is collaborating on a project to start a sustainable, locally run business for women in the Dominican Republic.


On September 8th, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued his inaugural speech. His first public address marks the start of a new era of human rights campaigning and memorialized Mr. Al Hussein as the first Asian, Muslim, and Arab High Commissioner. His impressive resume includes “involvement in the creation of the International Criminal Court” and diplomatic service on behalf of the Jordanian government; more notable is his passion for championing for the rights of all people regardless of religion, sex, or socioeconomic status.

Here are five important take-a-ways from the speech:

  • He sees development as a human rights issue.

While High Commissioner Al Hussein acknowledges that the famed Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have achieved some progress, he challenges the future creators of the next set of development goals—the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will begin in 2015—to “integrate the human rights agenda” into the SDGs and to create inclusive goals that uphold the value of the globe’s most vulnerable. His critique of the MDGs is that it has not successfully increased human rights and security.

  • He calls attention to less publicized conflicts.

Keeping in line with his reputation as one who “ruffles feathers” the High Commissioner tackled the frequently ignored conflicts that are raging in Africa. His zero tolerance approach to violence and abuse was articulated very clearly when Mr. Al Hussein called for greater involvement by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The High Commissioner is mandating a culture of accountability and is attempting to learn from the UN’s mistakes during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

  • He believes that human rights are a solution to the security dilemma.

Reflecting on the commonalities of States that are failing to uphold human rights, the High Commissioner notes that a lack of human rights promotion has “discouraged the development of tolerant and moderate civil society movements…” The OHCHR is dedicated to holding States accountable to complying with human rights law because it serves to secure the well-being of individuals. Mr. Al Hussein argues that when the citizenry feels safe, the State is more secure, which, in turn, helps to protect the region and, ultimately, aids in preventing conflict.

  • He is not afraid to challenge the developed world…

Lumping states like Australia, Spain, and the United States alongside the aforementioned countries, conveys the seriousness of High Commissioner Al Hussein’s commitment to upholding human rights. His boldness in condemning developed nations for the unlawful detention of migrants and individuals seeking asylum marks the beginning of a four year term that promises to be a time of intense scrutiny, during which the seemingly ‘untouchable’ States will also be held accountable for upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Leaving no room for ambiguity, Mr. Al Hussein said that the “OHCHR’s mandate is to ensure that universal human rights norms are upheld, making no distinction between countries…”

  • …or the Security Council.

“When the veto is exercised for the sole purpose of blocking action by the Security Council, with no alternative course of action offered, and when people are suffering so grievously—that is also a form of cruelty.” The Security Council’s weight has long been a seemingly guaranteed loophole for circumventing international law. Yet, the new High Commissioner, following the initiative of Permanent Member, France, has made it a priority to change the culture of the Security Council during his tenure. His speech emphasized the need for uniform support of the adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international norms.

In the midst of the current egregious human rights violations that are occurring around the globe, Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has begun his term as High Commissioner with enthusiastic resolve to make lasting change in the world. His speech conveyed an agenda that promotes complete observance of international law and refuses to tolerate noncompliance. Mr. Al Hussein’s universal challenge to states to conform to international law has underscored his sincerity and reminded the world that each state has an obligation to create a culture of human rights within its own borders.

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