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Grassroots leaders provide the best hope to a troubled world – Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

Amid cruelty and suffering, there are heroes, says Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who steps down on September 1st.

Aug 30th 2018.
Winston Churchill famously claimed that of all human qualities, courage was the most esteemed, because it guaranteed all others. He was right. Courage—moral courage—is the companion of great leadership. No politician could ever be viewed as exceptional unless he or she had it in spades. And historically there would have been no social progress if not for the presence of specific humans dissenting and breaking from herd-inspired suspicion and fear.

At best, courage is self-sacrificing, non-violent, modest and based on universal principles—and immensely powerful. Think Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. Regrettably, courage is also rare: think Gandhi or MLK again. And dangerous: both men were assassinated.

Now look at today’s politicians. First, those who occupy so much of the news media’s attention: the Trumps, the Orbans, the Salvinis. Keen to be viewed as the virile leaders of their respective countries; eager to inflate their image by harming migrants and refugees, the most vulnerable in society. If there is courage in that, I fail to see it. Authoritarian leaders, or elected leaders inclined toward it, are bullies, deceivers, selfish cowards.

If they are growing in number it is because (with exceptions) many other politicians are mediocre. They, too, are focused on their own image, the vanities associated with protocol and re-election. Too busy with themselves, or too afraid to stand up to the demagogues and for others, they seem to shelter in the safety of silence and shuffled papers. Only when they leave public office do some speak up, discovering their courage rather belatedly. Many come and go; no one really notices.

In consequence, too many summits and conferences held between states are tortured affairs that lack profundity but are full of jargon and tiresome clichés that are, in a word, meaningless. What is absent is a sincere will to work together, though all will claim—again, under the lights and on camera—that they are wholly committed to doing so. The systems for states to act collectively at higher levels in pursuit of solutions are decomposing. There are signs of it everywhere we care to look.

For example, Takfirism—the ideology anchoring al-Qaida, Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda offshoot, now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), Boko-Haram, al-Shabab, the Islamic State terror group and others—fails to disappear, even after thousands of drone attacks and bombings against these groups. Does this not tell us something? How is it these groups still exist? Changing their names occasionally but still able to plague so many countries and hound their people decade after decade: why are these hateful, vicious groups still a menace?

Too many summits held between states are tortured affairs that lack profundity but are full of tiresome clichés
This suggests that we have failed to confront a major component of the cause. Takfirism should have been dismantled ideologically long ago, at the insistence of the international community. But it was not. Led by too many feckless politicians, the international community has been too weak to do anything about it. Too weak to privilege human lives, human dignity, tolerance—and ultimately, global security—over the price of hydrocarbons and the signing of defence contracts. Instead, the world’s response focuses on the foot soldiers: on profiling, on airport searches and emergency laws, thereby stigmatising a vast group of people. And the Takfiris are still there.

In Europe there will be more campaigns against the niqab and hijab (coverings worn by some Muslim women), and their absent handshakes, egged on by the frothing-at-the-mouth right–wing. Yet there will probably be no campaigns against the sale of weapons or the provision of banking services to those who foster intolerance in Islam.

And the situation will grow even more dangerous. In fact, the consequences could destroy Europe, the Middle East and South-East Asia.

I believe it is only a matter of time, for example, before we see a Takfiri confrontation with Buddhist extremism in Asia. Where this is likely to occur, geographically, and who is likely to be involved, can already be surmised. The how and the when are, as always, indeterminate. It will depend on the outcome of regional presidential elections and how the situations in Cox’s Bazaar and Myanmar play out. The current signs are not encouraging. What is clear is that our systems for fixing this are broken.

When Myanmar inflicts enormous suffering on the Rohingya—burns them in their homes, cuts the throats of their children, rapes and terrorises, sends 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh in only three weeks—and the government pays no penalty for this—what are we saying to the perpetrators? Or to the victims? And to other potential perpetrators across the globe? Xi Jinping openly backs the government of Myanmar and, unusually for the US, given the extent of the horrors, President Trump did not even mention Rakhine when he addressed the UN General Assembly in September 2017. Strong evidence indicates the Burmese military and others may have committed acts of genocide. How much more cruel can humanity be, and how much chaos and pain are we fomenting?

Already, elsewhere, many have lost faith in international law and in the security architecture. You can understand perfectly well why, for example, with Israel’s 51-year occupation of Palestine appearing interminable, so many Palestinians are cynical about international law, international human rights law and the institutions designed to uphold them. The same could be said for the people of Western Sahara.

That Crimea can be seized by Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, in violation of international law, also speaks volumes about the attitudes of the major powers. When Syria’s civilian population and medical facilities can be bombed daily, its people tortured and starved year after year, for seven years, is there any law at all? The same could be said of Yemen. And then there is Libya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Mali, Somalia, Burundi, Cameroon, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

And the lesson? Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and the League of Nations did nothing, could do nothing, to prevent or reverse it—with the dictator of Nazi Germany taking note.

Who is taking note now?

Will we see a confrontation between Israel and Hamas expand rapidly to become a broader reckoning between Iran and a loose coalition comprising Israel, the United States and a bloc of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia? It could happen. The sequence it could follow is discernable: a rocket hits a house in southern Israel, a heavy response ensues, creating a repeat of the events of 2014—only this time it expands rapidly.

And when multiple stress fractures already exist—the result of decades of mediocre leadership—all that’s required is a tripwire. To heal those fractures, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, we must think differently, think more about human rights, and do this with some urgency.

A fracture within society is often shorthand for human suffering or the existence of burning grievances. Before conflicts begin, suffering stems from three types of human rights violations. One is the denial of fundamental freedoms, such as of opinion, expression and peaceful assembly, creating a situation where life and fear of the state become inseparable. A second is the deprivation of basic services, such as legal and social protections or rights to education and healthcare, which often only confirms the hold of political elites over others. And third, feeding the first two, discrimination, structural and deep, propped up by racism, chauvinism and bigotry.

When multiple stress fractures already exist—the result of decades of mediocre leadership—all that’s required is a tripwire
The suffering inflicted by self-serving and weak leadership along these three axes is immense and world-wide.

Startling, but obvious to anyone working in human rights, is the colossal number of people still victimised by discrimination, deprivation and fearfulness, removed from the services and protections of the state because they are seen as less deserving, by dint of religion, race, ethnicity, colour, gender, sexual orientation and so on. The overwhelming majority of this group is, not surprisingly, desperately poor.

In Guatemala, a middle-income country, 47% of all children under five—half of that age group!—are severely malnourished. In a middle-income country! Almost all are from the indigenous communities. That is what discrimination and deprivation look like.

In Colombia, a country recovering from a brutal and long civil war, I took a boat trip on the Atrato river and witnessed armed groups still at war with the state, harvesting gold illegally along its banks and pouring huge quantities of nitrous oxide and mercury into its waters. There were Afro-Colombian communities all along the river, children wading in the toxic mix—all of them very poor. And as if that was not shocking enough, the presence of local security forces nearby who were doing nothing to prevent it spoke volumes about how discrimination and local corruption are connected and endemic.

In Ilopango, El Salvador, I met four young girls sentenced to thirty years’ imprisonment for having terminated their pregnancies, in trials that fell well below international standards. The prohibition of abortion is absolute in El Salvador. The girls maintained—and observers have backed them up—that they had suffered obstetric emergencies. Yet rather than being taken to hospital as blood and amniotic fluid ran down their legs, they were handcuffed and taken to prison. I wept openly with them, unable to cope with the cruelty of it all. There were more than fifty such girls, all of them poor, many illiterate—none connected to a prominent family. The law, unyielding and supported widely by the political class, falls hard on the poor; never on its own privileged authors. Is this not rank hypocrisy?

The apparent powerlessness of those who suffer was also brought home to me in Jafna, Sri Lanka, where Tamil communities dispossessed of their land by the military decades ago still live in the most basic and deplorable conditions. Even when the government is committed to the release of their lands and properties, the military refuses to obey, so the innocent and displaced continue to suffer terribly.

I saw similar conditions in Libya when visiting a camp hosting a displaced Touareg community. The general insecurity around Tripoli, particularly at night, with abductions and shootings commonplace, meant their situation was precarious (though that could be said of all the countries I visited where local armed conflict was prevalent, such as the Central African Republic, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo). People who have been discriminated against and deprived of essential services are not just having to eke out an existence on a daily basis—which is backbreaking enough—but must do so under the constant threat of extreme violence.

Rather than be taken to hospital as blood and amniotic fluid ran down their legs, the women were handcuffed and taken to prison
And that suffering, which I have either seen first-hand or which was conveyed to me vividly by the victims, reflects a massive dereliction of the duty to serve, by those who exercise sovereignty on behalf of their people. Across the world, in both the northern and southern hemispheres, there are politicians who are too self-serving, or too spiteful, to care for and protect the most vulnerable. They are not just cowardly but profoundly foolish, because in producing these stress fractures, they place at risk not only their own futures, but everyone else’s as well.

If we do not change course quickly, we will inevitably encounter an incident where that first domino is tipped—triggering a sequence of unstoppable events that will mark the end of our time on this tiny planet.

Can we swerve in time?

My hope lies in a set of people not widely known internationally, but familiar to those in the human rights community. Unlike the self-promoters—the elected xenophobes and charlatans—these people do have courage. They have no state power to hide behind: instead, they step forward. They are the leaders of communities and social movements, big and small, who are willing to forfeit everything—including their lives—in defence of human rights. Their valour is unalloyed; it is selfless. There is no discretion or weakness here. They represent the best of us, and I have had the privilege of knowing some of them personally, while others are well known to my office.

Suffering reflects a massive dereliction of the duty to serve, by those who exercise sovereignty on behalf of their people
This is what true leaders look like. Bertha Zuniga Caceres from Honduras, the young daughter of the murdered environmental activist, Bertha Caceres, who has bravely continued her mother’s struggle. Dr Sima Samar in Afghanistan, who leads the country’s independent human rights commission and is utterly fearless, even when threats to her personal safety abound. The same could be said of Senator Leila de Lima in the Philippines, who has now been arbitrarily imprisoned without trial for 18 months. Pierre Claver Mbonimpa from Burundi, a gentle yet principled soul, undeterred even after his son was murdered and he himself survived repeated attacks.

I have also been deeply impressed by the dignity and courage of Denis Mukwege from the Democratic Republic of Congo, an extraordinary human being by any measure. Likewise, I have been humbled by the determination of Angkhana Neelapaijit from Thailand, whose husband, a lawyer, disappeared in 2004 leaving her to become a most courageous activist, fighting against enforced disappearances.

There are others too, from Bahrain for example: the Khawaja family, Nabeel Rajab, Maytham Al Salman and Ebtisam Al Sayegh, who have all have shown extraordinary courage in the face of considerable adversity. Hatoon Ajwad Al Fassi and Samar Badawi in Saudi Arabia: courageous leading voices for the rights of Saudi women, both currently in detention. Amal Fathy in Egypt and Radhya Al Mutawakel in Yemen are also two brave individuals who have put their own safety at risk as they have spoken out against injustice and on behalf of victims of human-rights violations.

Likewise, Ludmila Popovici, an activist against torture in Moldova. In Poland, Barbara Nowacka has been active in organising protests against measures to pull back women’s rights. Sonia Viveros Padilla in Ecuador is fighting for the rights of people of African descent. Close by, in El Salvador, Karla Avelar, the courageous transgender activist, deserves high praise—as does the Peruvian Maxima Acuna, a well-known environmental human rights defender.

I could continue. There are grassroots leaders of movements against discrimination and inequalities in every region. These names are just a sample of the real store of moral courage and leadership that exists among us today.

While some speak from an individual vantage point, fighting specific battles on behalf of their local communities, others lead broader social movements. World-wide, they are not coordinated. But what if they were? What would happen if all the movements supported each other, openly and actively?

There are grassroots leaders of movements against discrimination and inequalities in every region…the real store of moral courage and leadership among us.

I first saw this on a small scale when I was in Guatemala in 2017. At a meeting with civil society, all the activists representing their different communities backed each other fiercely, spoke as one human rights movement—and their power left a lasting impression on me. What if we replicated this on a much grander scale? What if a Pride parade in London, for example, were not simply the LGBTi community on its own, organising and marching, but had all the other movements in tow—the women’s movement, those fighting for the rights of disabled persons, racial minorities and the like, marching with them? What if 100m or more people marched around the world in protest at what it is we now see: the ineptitude, selfishness, the cruelties and the threats to our collective well-being?

What if this coordinated, focused, human-rights movement had the backing of business leaders? There are business leaders who are also real leaders, and who have thought seriously about human rights; people like Barbara Novick of Blackrock, Paul Polman of Unilever, Microsoft’s Brad Smith and Deepmind’s Mustafa Suleyman. This has never been done before; but if we did do it, it might just deliver a sort of shock therapy to those dangerous or useless politicians who now threaten humanity. Maybe, just maybe, it would be enough to stop the rot, so that when a fool tips that first domino or strikes the tripwire they hurt no one but themselves, and we can hope that the injury is only a slight one.

I leave you with that thought. This is my parting note: one of courage and defiance, and a longing for the leadership of the just.


Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein served as the sixth United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from September 1st 2014 to September 1st 2018, the first Asian, Muslim and Arab to serve in the role. Previously he was Jordan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York and earlier still, its Ambassador to America. In his 25-year diplomatic career, Prince Zeid helped establish the International Criminal Court, produced oversight policies for UN peacekeeping troops and worked on counter-nuclear terrorism following 9/11.

The Economist.


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