Prince Zeid at odds with own country over human rights criticism
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.”