Top diplomat Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein takes us inside the backrooms of global diplomacy
Former UN human rights chief shares his advice on how to be a good citizen
Originally published on Dec. 13, 2019.
This is a two-part conversation: Listen to Part 1 | The Unconventional Diplomat: Breaking The Rules
Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein is perhaps best known as the outspoken UN High Commissioner for Human Rights — considered the world's moral-arbiter-in-chief — from 2014 to 2018. But he refused to run for a second term because he says it might have meant "bending a knee in supplication" before the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: United States, France, Russia, China and the United Kingdom.
"I didn't see my job as defending governments. Governments are more than capable of defending themselves. My job is not to defend them. Why should I excuse their behaviour? Why should I play to them? Why should I grovel before them?" Al Hussein told Ideas producer Mary Lynk at his home in Harlem, New York.
"The job is to speak on behalf of all of those who are in detention, who are arbitrarily arrested, who are denied basic services, the right to education, the right to health, the right to adequate housing, clean drinking water."
Al Hussein also points out Canada's failure to ratify the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. A bill supporting its implementation did pass the House of Commons, but not the Senate.
To those against the bill, Al Hussein says:
"... have some shame. Recognize what human suffering is. Money isn't everything. If it was, we would still have slavery. At some point, you draw a line and you say we will not, we will no longer behave in the way that we used to behave. And, we're going to change."
A learned, eloquent man, Al Hussein has a PhD in philosophy from Cambridge University. He's been President of the UN Security Council and was the founding president of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.
But his pivotal moment in life came as a UN peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia in 1994 and 1995. He refers to this time as a formative experience and an anchor to his career.
Al Hussein admits that being a staunch defender of human rights does have side-effects.
"If you're a human rights defender, I think you've ought to have enough self-awareness to realize that within us, deep within us, we have the very failings of humanity itself."
That humanity extends to devoting part of life to being of service to others, something he believes achieves deeper happiness and satisfaction in life.
"If everything revolves around you, everything is about you and the material, wealth or well-being, no matter how much of it you have, you're going to be still searching."
* This episode was produced by Mary Lynk.