• |

Former UN High Commissioner Speaks at SNC

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, used his Oct. 25 Norman & Lewis Miller Lecture in Public Understanding to expound on the pressing modern threats to human rights.

Celebrated for his role in forming the International Criminal Court, al-Hussein has held several high-ranking posts as a diplomat, peacekeeper and humanitarian. He is presently the president of the International Peace Institute. He is counted among The Elders; this group of 15 independent global leaders who work together for human rights, justice and peace was founded by Nelson Mandela.

Zooming in for the SNC event due to an unlooked-for travel delay, al-Hussein focused, for his Walter Theatre audience, on the causes and possible remedies for issues facing societies around the globe – issues such as xenophobia and radicalism.

Addressing growing global conflict
Robert Pyne, director of the Norman Miller Center for Peace, Justice & Understanding, introduced al-Hussein who, during his time at the U.N., gained a reputation as a fair and uncompromising individual who was willing to speak out and critique fascism, extremism and human rights abuses even in countries that were members of the U.N. Council.

The former high commissioner was quick to acknowledge the war in Ukraine, calling out not only the invasion and human-rights abuses but also the potential deteriorating mental health of the Russian leader. The talk of mental health would be a reoccurring theme, with al-Hussein reciting a finding of one of his colleagues calling for the need of mental health professionals over even U.N. peacekeepers.

Another recurring theme was the importance of history, from al-Hussein’s own family history as rulers in the Middle East to the historical abuses that many countries refuse to reckon with. “When looking at the global human rights picture today,” he said, “it is almost impossible to disentangle the laws relating to rights from their historical contexts, and to ignore the failure of almost all countries to properly reckon with their pasts.”

Human rights in the US
Al-Hussein called for the United States, specifically, to increase its involvement with human rights by establishing a non-partisan commission within the country and finally joining many global treaties for universal human rights. A reckoning with the United States’ history of discrimination, especially racial discrimination, was also explained as necessary. He gave his strong opinion that the entire country must ensure that knowledge about human rights is part of the education system for all, regardless of degree-level, major or planned career path.

“For a while now, I have been concerned how our educational systems, when stressing technical competency, seem to do so to the exclusion of something deeper: a moral component, a guide,” he said.

The power of the dissident voice
After his lecture, al-Hussein was joined by human rights and international studies scholar Micheline Ishay of the University of Denver’s Korbel School for International Studies for questions. (The event also served as a launch for the third edition of Ishay’s “Human Rights Reader.”)

The two thought-leaders discussed the power of those who spoke up about human-rights abuses and rightfully challenged unjust rulers. “The human rights dissident or the voice is immensely powerful,” al-Hussein reminded his audience, noting the fragility of those clinging to power. “Why do you have to assassinate a dissident, one voice, or go after someone and put them in prison because they made a critical comment?” he said.

Listeners were encouraged to think more critically about human rights, both around the world and in their home countries, and al-Hussein proposed a new perspective on human rights activism with the combatting of xenophobia at its center.

“It’s not a matter of defending a slice of humanity, it’s defending everyone’s rights. It’s the realizing that they’re not mutually exclusive … that we can embrace diversity without feeling threatened,” he said.

Dec. 9, 2022