Prince Zeid at odds with own country over human rights criticism

Sunday 18/06/2017
Unyielding. Jordan’s Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad al-Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, at a news briefing at the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) conference centre in Addis Ababa, last May. (AFP)

Washington - Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad al- Hussein was a rising star in Jordan’s diplomatic corps. He was an officer in the Hashemite kingdom’s military before being appointed Jordan’s ambassador to the United States from 2007-10. Prince Zeid was then Jordan’s ambassador to the United Nations until July 2014.
However, with his appointment as UN high commissioner for hu­man rights in September 2014, he adopted a more critical approach to his native country.
After Amman reinstituted the death penalty and executed 11 men in 2014, Prince Zeid criticised Jor­dan for ending the 8-year morato­rium, noting the “tragic frequen­cies” of executed detainees later proven innocent. When King Ab­dullah II in March welcomed Suda­nese President Omar al-Bashir, who faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC) on genocide charges, Prince Zeid said Jordan was “failing the ICC and weakening the global struggle against impunity and for justice.”
Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh rejected Prince Zeid’s claim, blasting Saudi Arabia for hu­man rights violations in its war in Yemen. Riyadh is one of Jordan’s closest allies and it publicly backed the Saudi military campaign in Yemen despite the humanitarian crisis.
In an interview with Foreign Poli­cy magazine, Prince Zeid expressed regret that he has only spent three days at home since assuming his post at the United Nations given his strained relationship with the Jor­danian government.
“It pains me, because it’s a coun­try that I love and that I represent­ed with pride for many years — not that it’s a country that has a perfect human rights record, clearly not, but it’s a country that I have an at­tachment for but now the relation­ship is quite cool,” he said.
Some Jordanian human rights ac­tivists and former top officials said they appreciate Prince Zeid’s activ­ism. “Zeid is a man of integrity. He said even if my country makes a mistake, I won’t pull my punches,” said Adnan Abu Odeh, former Royal Court chief.
Nadine Nimri, senior reporter for Al-Ghad newspaper and winner of the Jordanian Media Institute’s Hu­man Rights reporting award, said she appreciates Prince Zeid’s work. “He’s not in Geneva to just give mujamalat, or compliments, to the Jordanian government or the Saudi regime. Zeid’s a UN commissioner and is supposed to be defending human rights,” Nimri noted.
She said that if he were not pre­pared to address the human rights violations across the Arab world be­cause of political sensitivities, then Prince Zeid wouldn’t be “qualified to handle his position.”
Outside of Jordan’s relatively small human rights community, some Jordanians said Prince Zeid’s blunt style is inappropriate. Musa Shteiwi, director of the Univer­sity of Jordan’s Centre for Strate­gic Studies, said Prince Zeid was “working as a civil society organi­sation or as an advocate to criticise things beyond [what] his mandate is supposed to be.”
Shteiwi contended that Prince Zeid adopting a more diplomatic approach would be more effective.
While Jordanian government circles do not appreciate Prince Zeid’s forthright attacks on human rights in the Hashemite kingdom or among allied countries, their views are hardly consistent. The govern­ment’s Petra News extensively cites the former US ambassador’s harsh criticism of Israeli settlements and house demolitions.
“If he criticised human rights in Iran, we would praise him,” said Oraib Rantawi, director of the Amman-based Quds Centre for Po­litical Studies, noting longstanding tensions between Jordan and Teh­ran.
However, the Hashemite king­dom is far less welcoming to Prince Zeid’s human rights criticism when aimed at the Jordanian government or its strategic partner, Saudi Ara­bia.
“It is a double standard when it comes to human rights,” Rantawi said. “We are against human rights violations in some countries but we give a blind eye to the same viola­tions or even more in other coun­tries based on our political relation­ships with those regimes.”
Zeid’s criticism of Jordan’s stra­tegic Arab allies can play a destruc­tive role in the region, Shteiwi said. “In some cases, like in Egypt, you need to analyse the overall condi­tions and what leads to violence and terrorism. It looks sometimes as if he (Prince Zeid) is saying unin­tentionally that he is justifying ter­ror attacks referring them to human rights violations,” he said.
Although Prince Zeid is the first Jordanian to serve in such a high-ranking international post, this is not the first time that an Arab has assumed a top-level UN responsibil­ity. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a former Egyptian diplomat, was the sixth UN secretary-general from 1992-96. “When there is an Arab representa­tive in those high-ranking positions in the United Nations, always there is an attempt to use this position to achieve some political purposes for some Arab countries but it doesn’t work by the way,” Rantawi said.
Noting his difficult relationship with the Jordanian government and fellow Arab regimes, Prince Zeid told Foreign Policy: “They look at me in disbelief, believing in a very tribal sense that as an Arab, my job is not to disclose the dirty laundry of Arab governments. I don’t re­spond well to pressure from any government.”