Human Rights, Global Governance, International Law, The Global Cable Safeguarding Humanity with Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein

February 7, 2020
By Perry World House | The Global Cable

Our latest episode of The Global Cable features Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, Perry World House Professor of the Practice of Law and Human Rights. From 2014 to 2018, he served as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, working to protect people from abuses around the world.

Zeid talks to us about why human rights abuses appear to be worsening, how advances in technology could have a severe impact on our rights, and how he teaches Penn students about courage.

Music & Produced by Tre Hester.

Listen now.


Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:00:08] It's actually quite amazing how most people have a sort of idea what human rights are about, because they understand them in the subsets. They understand what the rights of women ought to be or the rights of children ought to be, the rights of persons with disabilities. So they understand that. For them, understanding the totality of it is more complicated, because you don't really see a human rights march anywhere. You see a pride march, you see a Black Lives Matter march, but you don't really see a human rights march because everyone is seized with the components, the parts of it, and sort of forgets that there is a whole that needs to be understood.

John Gans [00:00:57] Welcome to The Global Cable, a podcast from Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, where we discuss the world's most pressing issues with the people who work on them. I'm John Gans, the director of communications and research here at Perry World House.

John Gans [00:01:10] On today's episode, we speak to Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein. Nowadays, he's the Perry World House Professor of the Practice of Law and Human Rights here at Penn. From 2014 to 2018, Zeid served as the UN high Commissioner for Human Rights. And before that, he worked as a Jordanian diplomat at the UN, in Washington, and elsewhere. Today, Zeid talks to us about why human rights abuses appear to be worsening, how advances in technology could have a severe impact on our rights, and what he teaches Penn students about courage. Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, welcome to The Global Cable.

John Gans [00:01:47] Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, welcome to The Global Cable.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:01:50] Thank you.

John Gans [00:01:51] So you joined Perry World House in 2018, after you were the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:01:59] That's right.

John Gans [00:02:02] That year was the 70th anniversary of the UN's Declaration of Human Rights, which begins that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:02:12] That's right.

John Gans [00:02:13] So you left the UN that year, the seventh anniversary. Did you assume, did you feel like it was mission accomplished? It was time to get out of the game?

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:02:20] You make it sound like I abandoned the ship at its critical hour! No, the contract, it was a very sort of bureaucratic answer to it.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:02:31] And that was the contract ran out in September of 2018 and it could have been renewed. But the procedure for renewal required at least the informal consent of the five permanent members of the Security Council, the U.S., China, Russia, the U.K., and France. And I had ample reason to believe that none of them, perhaps to my credit, would have wanted me to continue, because I think over the course of four years, all of them were upset or annoyed by what it is that I and my office had to say about some of the things that they were doing in respect of their human rights obligations. And quite frankly, John, I mean, any High Commissioner for Human Rights who does actually seek an extension and then wins an extension would, at least in my own view, draw suspicion, because I would wonder to myself, what deals have they cut with the five permanent members who, after all, at least in the case of the U.S., France, and the U.K. have been strong supporters of the human rights agenda over time, but also because of their political weight globally, would like on many occasions to have expediency, determine their actions as opposed to having law constrain them. And so they, I think, one and the same support the human rights agenda to a certain extent, maybe less so under the Trump administration. But at the same time, they bristle if any comments are made that are critical of their records. And so I felt that it was pointless even asking to extend, because I suspected that they would have asked for compromises or would have asked for me to rein in what it was I was saying. And so I announced late in 2017 that I wouldn't be seeking an extension. And so my term ended in September 2018. And I was very happy soon thereafter to find a home here at Perry World House.

John Gans [00:04:57] So as you reflect back on that time and as you have now spent, I guess, almost two years here at Perry World House, I guess my question is that you have, I think, a fairly realistic but also optimistic feelings about the pursuit of human freedom, dignity, and rights. How do youabout the idea, the concept of human rights as you look back on your time in office, but also on your time here at Perry World House?

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:05:29] Well, it's actually quite amazing how most people have a sort of idea what human rights are about, because they understand them in their subsets. They understand what the rights of women ought to be, or the rights of children ought to be, the rights of persons with disabilities. So they understand that. For them, understanding the totality of it is more complicated, because you don't really see a human rights march anywhere. You see a pride march, you see a Black Lives Matter march, but you don't really see a human rights march because everyone is seized with the components, the parts of it, and sort of forgets that there is a whole that needs to be understood.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:06:16] The other thing that's amazing, John, is that most people, if you ask them, well, do you think human rights are a strong or weak force in the human experience? You know, they think about it and some will say, well, probably weak. And I would say there's ample reason for believing that. I mean, after all, even at Penn, there is no center for human rights. There perhaps ought to be a faculty for it. But there's not even a center, there are one or two of us that are teaching it. And that is more or less the same for the vast majority of colleges in the United States and elsewhere. If you look at business literature, it's hardly ever mentioned. Political science hardly makes a mention of it.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:07:04] Economics, the social sciences, broadly speaking, don't make any mention. So I would say you're not wrong to assume that it's weak. But if you assume that it's strong, you also have evidence in support of that argument. I mean, after all, why is it that China, soon to be the world's largest economy, bristles any time any comment is made by someone within China or from without? And that is not just China. Russia is the same. The U.S. Is the same. I mentioned the U.K. and France. All countries don't like to be audited on their human rights records. So what is it then? And the reason why you have this, almost dichotomy, is that it is one of the strongest forces in the human experience because it basically certifies whether a government is abiding by its own constitution and treaty obligations.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:08:09] Human rights really is a set of interlocking treaties promoting certain rights -- women, children, etc. -- and prohibiting the violation of other rights. And they interlock and either countries are upholding them or they're violating them. And these countries derive their legitimacy from their constitutions, they're propped up by elections. But ultimate certification as to whether they're serving the people or not comes from elections. Yes, whether government power is thrown out, but where those institutions have eroded, then it comes from the human rights community. And that is the power of human rights. If you want to understand the political world, geopolitical dynamics, you need to a certain extent understand the power of human rights. And many are fearful of it. You know, they use euphemistic language. Across the street at Wharton, I suspect that many, when looking and speaking, are looking at these issues, and speaking of economic modeling and all-inclusive economies. They don't really want to go into the hard, confrontational language, because they are fearful where this may take them. And in the future, it may affect their employment opportunities because so many investment firms are invested in China, for example. And they don't want to be on record for having said anything. And you see it time and again. So it's a hugely interesting field to be in. And I find it hugely exciting to discuss it with Penn students writ large.

John Gans [00:09:50] You're doing this at a time where we're seeing challenges on the human rights front, whether it's gas attacks in Syria, concentration camps in China, inhumane detention practices of immigrants in the United States, atrocities in Myanmar and things along those lines.

John Gans [00:10:09] One question I have is, is the pursuit of human rights, of improving freedom, dignity and things along those lines, falling victim to renewed great power competition between the United States, China and other great powers as they position themselves for the future?

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:10:28] Well, you know, there are a number of things going on here. One is that, while it's accepted that states must exercise sovereignty over their own people, there is a realization over time, throughout the 20th century, that that sovereignty simply cannot be absolute. You cannot be left in a position where you can brutalize your own people. I once heard a dissident from the Russian Federation talk about this, and he said, and it was very powerful, John. He said, look, you know, in answer to a question, why should we care about what's happening in Russia? Why should we care what's happening to the dissidents in Russia? And this particular gentleman said, look, you have to think to yourself that, if in dictatorships or countries where repression exists, the leaders are prepared to do this to their own people, just imagine what they'll do to you. Right? So I look back and I think, I look at the German experience, in part because my grandfather was also the Iraqi ambassador in Berlin from the mid-'30s to 1938. I think just before the Anschluss, he left. But, you know, when the Enabling Act was implemented shortly after the Reichstag fire and the Weimar Republic ceased to exist, and Hitler had dictatorial powers, I'm quite sure that at the time, Stalin would have looked at this and thought, well, it's none of my business. I mean, after all, he himself was no wallflower. I mean, the purges had been in place, the gulags had been operating, started to operate around that time in full force. So he probably wouldn't have thought too much about it. But in 1941, when the armies of Hitler were crossing into the Soviet Union, I wondered. He was, for one day, utterly paralyzed, Stalin.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:12:52] I wonder whether he then realized what a mistake it was to believe that Hitler was someone you could deal with.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:13:00] And I think similarly, when you cast around the globe and you assume that, while you have a constellation of authoritarian-minded or nascent dictatorships, soon to be proper dictatorships, it doesn't really affect us. Well, maybe not now. Ultimately, the dynamics become uncontrollable. And, you know, how many times does humanity have to relive the experiences of the past to eventually learn?And, you know, one worries now because there's so many parallels that can be drawn with past experience, that it leaves you feeling very unsettled. These laws, these treaties and these conventions, they're not decorative. None of the people who negotiated them didn't suffer in the Second World War or didn't have experiences where they lost family members in the Shoah, the Holocaust. And this is all the product of deep human suffering. And any attempt to make it look frivolous is just a reflection of one's own ignorance, and a lack of understanding where it all originated from.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:14:18] The first line, we are all born free and equal. In the initial Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it was a sort of compilation of articles and there was no real structure to them. So they handed them over to this French lawyer, Rene Cassin, and he reordered them. Such that the first line of the preamble of the Universal Declaration read something like, "The ignorance and contempt of human rights has led to extreme human suffering." Ignorance and contempt. If you decide to be ignorant and contemptuous of it, this is what happens.

John Gans [00:15:02] It seems like you're arguing there that the pursuit of human rights is not just in line with ideals, but actually our interests. That is, that the pursuit of trying to make the world a better place is in part about security and making sure that you, yourself and your country are protected from the worst atrocities.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:15:23] Yeah, I think the erosion all begins with the individual. You know, it's when you see either states collapse or states perpetuate violations, it's the most sensitive seismograph as to whether the state is healthy or not.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:15:44] And if you accept the notion that all states are a work in progress, that all states require a constant sense of renewal and reinvestment, then the opposite is also the case. That any contemporary approach to the rights of all people...So look, every single, let's say, extremist in this world, whether you are ideologically extreme, or religiously extreme -- you're in defense of the rights of a group of people. Usually your group of people, at the expense of others. The way that the human rights agenda tries to end this is by making the argument that the rights of everyone are important and need to be supported. And in that sense, we need to enable a world, and this does resonate with the Chinese Confucian way of thinking, a world that is harmonious. But for the world to be harmonious, we need a world that respects fundamental freedoms, a world that doesn't tolerate structural discrimination, that leads to deprivation and eventually leads to violence. I mean, there are so few conflicts today which are strictly the product of border disputes. Right? I mean, so few. Most of them result from extreme human rights deficits, denial of rights to certain groups within a country, marginalized groups, indigenous groups, whatever they may be. And then you have the reaction, and then the country descends into civil war of some sort, drawing in neighboring states. And then the region is threatened. And isn't that how the Syrian conflict started, for example?

John Gans [00:17:34] So you talked a little bit about harmony there, and I think one of the things you're looking at Penn is the impact of technology on the human rights condition and the human condition. And I think you wrote in a piece for The Washington Post last year, 2019.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:17:52] You know that because I asked your opinion on it, and I think you gave me the sign off, but I think you asked me to make some changes, which were good changes, which I appreciated.

John Gans [00:18:07] That wasn't why I brought it up. I'm not hunting for editing work or compliments, but I think the one thing you should talk about is this idea of value neutrality and new technology, right. Saying that the global context helps determine whether technology delivers on its promise of helping making the world more harmonious, or not. What does that context look like today? And are there ways that we can move the global context in a more positive, more harmonious, more human rights friendly way?

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:18:42] Well, you know, the big tech firms do exercise an enormous amount of power. And I think it's in recognition of the fact that they should not supplant states, but they should reinforce what it is that states need to do. I think it's only wise, because they know better than most where the technology may go. They don't know very well, you know, the sort of hidden dangers of it, in the way that they ought to. And so there needs to be an element of self-policing, but also supporting the various state structures and beyond that, the international treaties that are in place. So, you know, we have a interlocking set of human rights treaties. Don't enable technologies which can be very easily used to usurp them. And if you're thinking of technologies in the initial state as being neutral, then guide them in the right way and solicit the opinions of those who protect the marginalized, protect the rights to privacy of individuals, lawyers' associations and so forth, because otherwise you end up only contributing to the problem when the situation goes awry. You know, one looks back at what happened in the Second World War in the United States, with the detention of Japanese-American citizens. And you always think to yourself, well, if the U.S. was embroiled in a cyberwar of quite sizeable proportions, would the U.S. government then, as the Chinese government has already said it would approach its own tech firms and say to them, OK, you know, if we're embroiled in a conflict with China, we need all the data on all Sino-Americans living in this country. And so if you're one of these tech companies, it's no use thinking about how you operate in the world of today. But you have to try and imagine, if we continue down this particular path, what the world of tomorrow may look like. And it's at that critical juncture where you have to take the hardest decisions. And then we can say with greater determination, or greater sense of confidence, whether or not technology is prone to context or whether it can defy contexts. Whether it be enslaved, you know, in a situation or to a situation where human rights violations can be very pronounced. I mean, when one looks at the way the Holocaust was prosecuted, and the arrangements were planned.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:21:40] It all begins with the collection of information. It all begins with the collection of data, surveys, census. Who lives where? Who owns what? Who can be moved? You know where the trains were running, the timetables. It is all based on the collection of data to begin with. So if the world is tumbling toward great uncertainty, yes, it does worry me that technology will just hasten our demise. And so what technology needs, technologists need to think of, is what can they do to stabilize this and to somehow encourage again governments around the world to invest more in human rights, invest more in democracy, invest more in rule of law, and not be targeted and swayed by these false prophets who are promising the world, and will only produce enormous depressions from which we may never emerge.

John Gans [00:23:01] You talked and I think you're hitting a piece of this, which you've talked about before you left the UN, and since you left the UN and joined Perry World House, which there's almost too little courage going around in official policy circles, and in technology circles, and things along those lines, to both see the potential problems and do the right thing about them. So how do you feel today, in January of 2020, about courage, and how do you try to teach courage, as you spend time with Penn students at the Law School and elsewhere?

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:23:40] Yeah, I mean, it's a term that's used  too frequently and you see it even in ads, you know, at a deep level, it's the willingness to sacrifice. It's the willingness to overcome that first instinct of humankind, the instinct of self-preservation, for the benefit of the whole. That's how we would categorize an archetype of good, for the benefit of the whole, and to self-sacrifice something. And I've seen it time and again at the level of activists and frontline human rights defenders in many, many countries, who are willing to basically forego their individual liberties, to spend a great amount of their life in prison for the sake of making a particular point, standing up to ruthless oppression. And you're just absolutely left breathless by what it is some people do. I think when you contrast it with the rank and file politician around the world, who claims to sort of be an effective leader, but they're Not really. And many of them are self-serving, craven, cowardly, and wouldn't be willing to sacrifice anything of themselves for the benefit of the whole. And so the contrast couldn't be greater. But, you know, we need to devote more of our attention to curricula that not only drives people's empathy and an understanding of what it means to be respectful of others, but also how it is that you can stoke within yourself a morality that then can be employed to order toward a courageous stand. I'm going to soon be lobbying on behalf of a very talented young German filmmaker.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:25:53] I actually met her producer here at Penn, who was coming through and was screening another one of this filmmaker's movies. And it's about how the Holocaust is taught in German schools. And the common perception is Germany has done extremely well, in terms of conveying to German youth the full scope of the horror that was the Holocaust. What this film shows is actually to a certain extent, it's backfiring, or not so much backfiring. But while they understand the sort of the mechanics of evil that brought it about, when asked in this film, and it's a sort of sample of schoolchildren, would they stand up and prevent its recurrence? Given that there is a potential threat of bodily harm to them, would they do it? And most said no. So it goes back to this point.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:27:01] If you're not teaching people to pull themselves together and to stand and to self-sacrifice, then I'm afraid, the sharper forces of disruption make it extremely difficult to for us to be hopeful. It's the very fact that we are not machines that we can rationalize to ourselves. This sort of self-sacrifice for the whole makes us truly unique. And I suppose that point alone leaves us feeling optimistic that somehow we can turn the corner. That was this author in 1936 who published a book about the First World War, and a British pilot, a former pilot, Cecil Lewis. And in one passage, he refers to the invincibility of man's stupidity. And no matter what we try and do, we just..And of course, and he's right to say, this basically speaks to men as opposed to women, because I think we are almost in that category.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:28:15] You know, it boggles the mind that we understand ourselves. Why do we have laws? We have laws because if we didn't have laws, especially the sort of superior laws preventing genocide and torture and so forth, because if we didn't have laws, we would be right there, doing it all over again all the time. And that's why we can't trust ourselves. And if we can't trust ourselves, we've got to constantly be working at  turning ourselves into better human beings. And there's no other way of doing it than to insist that we respect the rights of everyone.

John Gans [00:28:57] So almost 300 years ago, Ben Franklin, who was one of Penn's first trustees, developed a questionnaire used for conversations with fellow Philadelphians interested in current global affairs, and we've sort of updated it. And so I thought I would ask you a few of those questions today. So who would you most like to meet and why?

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:29:18] Oh, my goodness. Yeah, I mean, fortunately, I've been in a position where I've met many of those that I've wanted to meet, heroes at grassroots level. I've met the Pope. I had a very interesting meeting with the Pope. I sat before him and I was tired and I said, Your Holiness, I've come to see you. I'm exhausted. And quite frankly, everyone comes to complain to me. And so today I'm coming to complain to you. And he said, well, who on earth do you think I have to complain to? And I said, maybe not on Earth. But I looked upward. No, you know, for me, I suppose, like many, I was initially sort of seduced by celebrity and meeting people who were considered to be celebrities. And I've sort of perhaps grown out of it a little bit. My wife would dispute it, she still says that I'm starry-eyed when I'm standing before some Hollywood star. But I suppose, you know, it's these human rights defenders that just always stood out as being in one way superhuman, and then one way very ordinarily human, that really I admire greatly. And there are too many to name, although I've done so in the past, but just some extraordinary people. So with all due respect to Ben Franklin, I'm not sure I know how to answer that particular question.

John Gans [00:30:53] That question is one of the few things that seems to have stumped everybody. It's a universally hard question. Have you recently read any books, articles, seen any movies, documentaries or listened to any music or lectures related to world affairs that our listeners might be interested in?

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:31:12] Yeah, well, I completed reading Antony Beevor's Spanish Civil War, which I found both fascinating and again, very troubling, given where the world is today in so many countries, polarized. And seemingly in many countries, it's getting worse, not easier. And you look at what happened to Spain between 1931 and 1936 and it's a great concern. I'm also reading a book now about Ireland, and Northern Ireland in particular, a book called Say Nothing. And it's dramatic. It's frightening. It makes one very sad, because it seemed in so many cases to be a conflict that was unnecessary, that with a better approach, and it didn't have to wait for the Good Friday agreement. It could have come twenty years earlier, it could have been resolved.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:32:20] And how stupidity, time and again, produces outcomes that are horrific and perhaps only with hindsight and some wisdom, we understand this. Although sometimes, you know, when you're looking at current affairs, you can divine stupidity rather quickly. And the costs of it are often felt and borne by others down the track. And so I think they're two books that made me think a great deal.

John Gans [00:32:52]  Can you think of anything in particular right now that Penn or Penn students can do to be of service to the world?

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:33:02] Yeah, you have to sign up to my course! No, take an interest in rights issues. The point I make to almost everyone, John, is that like us, I mean, you're a little bit younger than I am, but you get to your middle age and everyone goes through this little bit, at least little bit of a crisis about, you know, getting older. And is this what you should be doing and how meaningful is your life after all, as you begin to perceive the horizon? And I think you can, being a Penn student, you can just jump right ahead and skip all of that. And if you devote yourself to the service of others in your communities, caring about others, there's an instant sort of gratification and meaningfulness to your life. And that, I think, helps a great deal in answering questions about what is it all about, and why are we here? And there will be a time in your life when you do ask yourself that.

John Gans [00:34:07] Well, this was a good start of that conversation. So thank you very much, Zeid, and thanks for joining us here on The Global Cable.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein [00:34:14] Thank you so much!

John Gans [00:34:14]  If you like the conversation you heard today, you can subscribe to The Global Cable on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, or Stitcher. You can also follow us on social media at Perry World House, or find us on the World Wide Web at I'm John Gans, and that's it for today's Global Cable. Thanks for listening.