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The Impossible Diplomacy of Human Rights

Lecture by Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at
Georgetown University on the occasion of the presentation of the Trainor Award for Excellence in the Conduct of Diplomacy

16 February 2017

Good afternoon,

A new era is unfolding before us. 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. Our humanitarian colleagues are being asked to do the impossible, as the number and scale of raging conflicts continue to cause immense suffering and force unprecedented numbers of people to flee their homes. Violent groups of inconceivable brutality are still emerging from this furnace of wars. And countries in southern Africa are struggling with catastrophic drought. It is difficult to overstate the gravity of these and other crises, which we currently face.

Yet rather than dealing with them, we seem to be turning away and looking inwards. 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 behaviour. That system was always flawed, but for more than 70 years it had the undeniable advantage of staving off the prospect of World War III. Now we are witnessing a sudden and massive erosion of the commitments underpinning it.

A few months ago, I gave a short speech in The Netherlands in which I named a number of political leaders whose discriminatory and alarming rhetoric seemed based on a vision of a supposedly “pure”, illusory, past. Some weeks later, the French presidential contender Marine Le Pen responded with an open letter that, I think clearly illustrates the fundamental difference between our world-views.

Madame Le Pen’s central point is the assertion that within her political positioning “there is no resentment against anyone, no desire for nostalgia; but the simple desire, democratically expressed – serenely and peacefully – to protect and amplify our culture … and quite simply to continue to exist.” 

The question is: protect it from what? From whom does her country need protection? And how does she propose this protection be accomplished in order for her people to “continue to exist”? It would appear her intended targets, at least in the letter, are not the terrorists from whom we all need protection, but the international and regional laws and institutions my colleagues and I promote and represent. She writes that we form a “global hyperclass... a caste which scorns peoples, and thus human beings, their diversity and specific riches.” 

There is a curious paradox in this vocal defence of diversity, because it is common knowledge the immigrant population of France is targeted by Le Pen’s National Front party, which manifests evident intolerance of diverse customs, beliefs and modes of thought.

In attempting to understand this apparent contradiction, I cast back to the thinking of German jurist Carl Schmitt, who in the interwar period theorized an ideal world made up of nations of homogenous peoples – sharply demarcated, cleansed of outsiders and deeply bonded with a specific land. Diversity was acceptable between States, but not within them. A sovereign had a positive duty to identify and eliminate outsiders, according to Schmitt's thinking.

Madame Le Pen may or may not adhere to this general view of the world, but I do believe it is increasingly widespread today – and it is evident in 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”. I find it deeply alarming. It is 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. It undermines not only development but also peace.

Today’s nationalists seem, perhaps deliberately, to feed off the threat of terrorism. Terrorist violence is real and it is foul. But the nationalists fail to acknowledge that the perpetrators of most recent terrorist attacks are takfiris, who have taken up a militant ideology, clearly identified. The vast majority of Muslims are not takfiris – not in France or here in the U.S., or anywhere else; nor do they come even close to supporting the takfiris, who have murdered tens of thousands of Muslims, and displaced hundreds of thousands of others, in the pursuit of their ideology. To thwart the takfiris, would it not be far smarter to tap into the huge number of Muslims who despise them, instead of alienating the very group most likely to unmask their operations?

Imprecision can be a blunt and terrible instrument.

After all, when victims are dishonoured by those who exploit their very real suffering for political purpose, is that not imprecision in its most cynical form?

Second to absolute power alone, it is fabricated or exaggerated victimhood which corrupts absolutely. Tragically, it also remains very much part of the political seducer’s art. They then claim licence to do whatever is necessary, lawfully or otherwise, to correct those grievances. An entire community is identified as the source, the enemy – an enemy stripped of individuality, a group which thinks and plots as one.

Time and again, humanity has lost its bearings on the back of half-truths and lies, and the results have been disastrous. And an essential cohesion at the heart of every social fabric, once textured and fluid, is torn apart and replaced by sharp social divisions.

The last speech I delivered in Washington was at the Holocaust Museum, in 2015. Our collective historical experience with the lethality of anti-Semitism, in producing the colossal crime – the Holocaust – against the Jewry of Europe, imparts lessons every political leader, everywhere, should never lose sight of. There are no exact parallels with the modern day: no major political leader is a Nazi. But consider the case of Karl Lueger, the late 19th century Mayor of Vienna.

Karl Lueger had Jewish friends, and so startling was this fact, a Viennese journalist even asked him about it. “I decide who is a Jew,” was his purported response. That Lueger was one of the most rabid and consequential anti-Semites of the late nineteenth century was no contradiction to him, because his anti-Semitism was most probably never a matter of conviction. Karl Lueger merely recognized how anti-Semitism, fanned in the right circumstances, could yield enormous political dividends. Ballots would rain down on whatever political figure most effectively whipped up the winds of hatred.

The formula was clear: claim to represent an anxious group; amplify their grievances and sense of victimhood with slurs and outright lies directed against a community perceived as outsiders – on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or any other arbitrary status. Persevere until the community is seen as homogenous, somehow collectively perverse in thought and deed.

Do it all skilfully and the first lock toward political ascendency is picked. But at what cost ultimately? And what of the rights of those, against whom the persecution is aimed?

In Karl Lueger’s case this device inspired -- shortly before World War I -- a young face in a Viennese crowd, listening eagerly, absorbing Lueger’s peddling of hate, a man who in September1939 would plunge the world into an inferno.

Today’s nationalisms, with their hatreds in tow -- are different – but perhaps not different enough.

That millions of people have experienced profound suffering inflicted by this kind of hatred in the past, should surely have deterred by now any man or woman from mimicking Lueger’s stratagems, in however diluted form they may be. That political leaders still do so today, in countries where the lessons of two world wars should have been fully absorbed, is stupefying.

Can we be so reckless, so stupid, as to risk the future of humanity, simply for the sake of ballots?

Are we not being marched back to a Sarajevo?

To a Sarajevo of 1914, when the flammable competitive bristling of ethnic nationalisms eroded balances of power and any sense of compromise, to the point where a relatively obscure event at the margins of European politics triggered global catastrophe. Or maybe to a Sarajevo of the 1990s, and the war I was exposed to when I served in the former Yugoslavia. All the grievances, the lies that distorted them, the bitter ethnic nationalisms they re-ignited – and then military aggression, death and destruction. Revealing above all the thinness of European civilization, and its easy envelopment or puncture by the most bestial behaviour.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, we understood if this could happen in Europe in the 1990s it could still, given the right stimuli, happen anywhere. But those more recent lessons too, we seem to be forgetting.

A pathogen of divisive populism has infected a portion of the world so swiftly, much of what we work for now seems threatened. In such circumstances – when the deep, long-term work of prevention, and investment in a common future, risk being swept away – what can human rights diplomacy possibly hope to achieve? Is this impossibly complex job becoming futile?

Emphatically not.

Rather than buckling under that load, I am convinced the current state of the world reinforces the importance of the work we do. Our guidance, monitoring, advocacy and expertise are essential tools for repelling assaults on human rights. They provide a robust framework within which to stand up for those whose rights are threatened or violated.

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. 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. So much is at stake, and we can do it. Consider what was achieved by our predecessors, the giants of the rights movements: they ended slavery, colonialism, segregation, apartheid and more. The struggle which falls to our generation today therefore is far from hopeless.

We need – all of us – to defend international law -- international refugee law, international human rights law, international humanitarian law, international criminal law. For they – and the institutions that uphold them – are the very distillation and sum of human experience. They are not, as some would have you believe, the outcome of post-war bureaucratic doodling. They were woven together from the screams of millions who died violently or suffered horribly over many centuries. We know very well what will happen, should they be dissolved.

I work, in Geneva, in the building that housed the League of Nations. Every day, I am reminded of what we have to lose. Human progress is never perfect. We make mistakes, we stumble; we forget core truths. Truths such as that laid down by the unanimously endorsed Universal Declaration of Human Rights: recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all human beings being the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. So yes, sometimes we do falter –the political and economic elites in particular.

But, if we lash out blindly at each other and bring the whole house crashing down around us, so expensive will be the price paid by humanity, we could place ourselves well beyond recovery. 

I want, Ladies and Gentlemen, to belong to a rights based-movement of human beings. One that cares for everyone, stands up for everyone, and will march whenever and wherever it is needed. Surely what we saw on the 21st of January was the clearest expression of a common human faith.

I want to be one of those who speaks up on every occasion. Stands up to defend the rights of everyone, peacefully – especially those most vulnerable.

I want to believe the human impulse towards a greater good will always eclipse those menacing instincts lying deep within us all, that makes us vulnerable to suggestion.

I want to be part of a movement beyond my affiliations to family, to tribe or nationality, beyond my ethnicity, race, religion or gender, my professional affiliation, my sexual orientation or the like.

To put it another way, Ladies and Gentlemen, 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.

Watch the webcast of this speech:

https://youtu.be/z335VOUHFwQ