BELIEVE this or not, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein was already on the way out of the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) when he suddenly got the inspiration to insult the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, by telling him to take a psychiatric test.
On December 20 last year, Foreign Policy online, the self-styled “global magazine of news and ideas,” reported that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein of Jordan, told his staff that he would not seek a second term in his UN post. He cited his concern that his voice would be silenced in the new environment of international affairs.
On the same day, December 20, 2017, the New York Times reported that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who has openly criticized powerful governments, including the Trump administration, has made the unusual decision not to seek a second four-year term, saying it “might involve bending a knee in supplication.”
On December 21, 2017 in Geneva, Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, reported that Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, told his staff he would not seek reelection to his post as UN human rights chief. He sent an email message to his staff, which Xinhua saw, and wherein he said that 2018 will be the last of his mandate.
On December 21, 2017, the UK’s Independent newspaper reported that the UN human rights chief has quit after President Trump’s Jerusalem decision. He was stepping down, the paper reported, suggesting that his re-election would involve ”lessening the independence and integrity of his office…Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said he would not seek a second four-year term as the High Commissioner for Human Rights. He told this to his staff in an email.”
The quit news was carried by many media organizations across the world, but few really bothered to delve deeply into Al Hussein’s plans.
There was a brief mention that Zeid felt that the time was not conducive for the advocacy of human rights. But no one bothered to follow up. He was not notable for anything as a UN functionary. He was one official of whom it can be said that his office was more famous than him.
Global update on human rights
But then came March, when the high commissioner delivers his annual assessment of the human rights situation across the world.
On March 7, 2018, at the 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Switzerland, Zeid delivered his annual report and oral update on the activities of his office and recent human rights developments in the world.
In his statement before the assembled council, Zeid began by denouncing “narrow politicians who proliferate across the face of the world.”
He then presented what he called “a long list of human rights violations and abuses, and a sample of advances which are underway in several countries.”
He then reported on the situation in specific countries. He singled out Ecuador, Saudi Arabia. Gambia. Somalia, Portugal, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Bahrain, the occupied Palestinian territory, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Cambodia, North Korea, China, Thailand, Pakistan, India, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea.
Did he forget the Philippines? Of course not. He had some special words for us and for President Duterte.
He deplored what he described as President Duterte’s “authoritarian approach to governance which threatens to irreparably damage 30 years of commendable efforts by the Philippines to strengthen the rule of law and respect for the human rights of the people.”
Zeid urged all states to examine the effectiveness and human rights impact of the Philippines’ so-called “war on drugs.”
Two weeks later, he issued his stinging advice to Duterte to take a psychiatric examination.
This annoyed me enough to undertake research on several fronts:
1. The title of high commissioner; is it real?
2. The functions of a UN high commissioner on human rights; can he really call out the head of a sovereign state?
High commissioner is an old colonial title, which was used in the British empire and then went into disuse.
Historically, in the British Empire high commissioners were envoys of the imperial government appointed to manage protectorates or groups of territories not fully under the sovereignty of the British Crown.
After the Philippines gained autonomy from the United States on November 15, 1935, the United States appointed a series of high commissioners to administer the affairs of the islands, the last of whom was Paul V. McNutt.
During the negotiations about Hong Kong’s further status, the Chinese delegation proposed that any state that have diplomatic relations with China could establish a consulate in Hong Kong. The British delegations instead wanted to establish a high commission, thinking the Chinese would not notice the difference. A Chinese delegate, who had worked in Commonwealth countries, was furious and said: “What is your heart in demanding this? I know, you only establish high commissions in capital cities in the British Commonwealth. … China’s capital is Beijing, not Hong Kong. Do you want to change Hong Kong into a proto-British-Commonwealth Republic, or outright full British Commonwealth Republic?”
The British were shocked and said “we also have commercial commissions in other countries.” The Chinese replied: “This is just a play on words, these two things are not related at all, you can’t fool us this way.” The British agreed to establish a consulate in Hong Kong.
The title of UN high commissioner is a relic of the colonial past. It has no place in a modern United Nations.
I looked up the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to see for myself what are the real functions and authority of the high commissioner.
The High Commissioner for Human Rights coordinates human rights activities throughout the UN system and supervises the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.
The purpose of the office is to promote universal enjoyment of all human rights by giving practical effect to the will and resolve of the world community as expressed by the United Nations
I searched for some indication that the so-called high commissioner would have the authority to call out the head of a member state.
So far as I could determine, the UNHRC and its high commissioner have no such authority.
China is correct to rebuke commissioner Zeid for disrespecting President Duterte. Otherwise DU30 would be perfectly within his sovereign rights to feed him to crocodiles.