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U.N. Commissioner For Human Rights Faces Challenges In Iraq, Syria

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now a talk with the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, who brought an unusual resume to that job, which he assumed in September. He happens to be a member of the Jordanian royal family. He's a prince. He has served as Jordan's ambassador to the U.S. and to the U.N., and he is the first Muslim to hold the U.N. human rights post. Commissioner Zeid Al Hussein, welcome to the program.

ZEID RA'AD AL HUSSEIN: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about what's being done by ISIS which you've described as including probably committing acts of genocide in Iraq as defined by international treaty. Do you include what ISIS is doing in Syria for one thing, and second, are we talking about many different groups that are fighting, say, in Syria and Iraq.

HUSSEIN: I addressed this very issue to the U.N. Security Council yesterday in a discussion focused exclusively on Iraq. But what happens in Iraq in respect of this particular group, of course, has application in Syria. The ideology is the same. And whether you discuss ISIL in Iraq or Syria, or Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, or Boko Haram in Nigeria, or the al-Shabab organization in Somalia, the ideological stream of thinking is very narrow, and it's the same.

SIEGEL: Those are all non-state actors, as they say.

HUSSEIN: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: Is the behavior of the Syrian regime in Syria - does it raise human rights questions comparable to those posed by ISIS?

HUSSEIN: Well, there is of course now a long catalog of recorded abuses on the part of the regime from the use of barrel bombs to the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas. The actions by the Shabiha, the militia which has connections to the regime, have been well documented. And in my discussions with Syrian authorities while we have touched upon the crimes committed by ISIL, I said to them, you know, you know that I will also raise with you and publicly these other crimes that we've also - have been documented, and particularly most recently by the commission of inquiry the led by Sergio Pinheiro.

SIEGEL: You have been a peacekeeper...

HUSSEIN: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...And you helped get the international criminal court up and running.

HUSSEIN: Yes.

SIEGEL: A cynical view of the International Criminal Court is that it takes years, sometimes decades to bring offenders to trial, and if the prosecution of war crimes in Bosnia or genocide in Rwanda was supposed to deter someone, it didn't deter anyone in Iraq or Syria it seems. What's the role? What's the point of the International Court?

HUSSEIN: It's a good question, Robert. We're trying to place limits on the excesses that occur in conflict and the excesses that occur when tyrants abuse their people. Now, of course we wouldn't have expected that a few years after the adoption of this treaty setting up this court we would have a perfect system. It'll take a few generations before we get there - before political leaders will realize that there is a price to be paid for the commission of atrocities.

SIEGEL: You think that time will come?

HUSSEIN: It will come. It will come, absolutely.

SIEGEL: You told the Security Council yesterday that it is disturbing how few to nonexistent have been the public demonstrations of anger in the Arab and Muslim worlds over the crimes being committed in Iraq. In September, the Grand Sheikh of Egypt's Al-Azhar denounced ISIS jihadists as criminal, but he also called them colonial - I'm quoting now - "colonial creations that serve Zionism in its plot to destroy the Arab world." It's a denunciation, but it seems to also be an evasion of the fact that the Islamic State, so-called, is an Islamic problem largely. Do you welcome that kind of anger?

HUSSEIN: Well, I referred in my statement yesterday to a letter that was signed by 126 prominent Muslim scholars where there's a point-by-point rebuttal to the statement issued previously by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi...

SIEGEL: The head of ISIS.

HUSSEIN: That's right. I think there's a limit beyond which - the limit to the airstrikes and military actions and the financial impositions that are being placed on ISIL, and then you find that it will still exist in some form because it taps in to a general Muslim yearning for a caliphate, although not one that basically we would want to see like this - built on the back of massive crimes being committed.

SIEGEL: But you're saying an idea of, in effect, undoing the nation state system and replacing it with an Islamic zone or a caliphate is something that appeals somewhere in the heart.

HUSSEIN: It does. And the religious scholars who signed this letter were very clear that this can only come about if you have a consensus by all Muslims that this is what they want. It's not up to a small group to decide these things, and especially not on the back of the crimes that they're committing. And clearly, this is something - this ideological - or let's say the front on ideas, I think, is very important - that thought must be confronted by thought, however narrow the initial thought that you have observed is. And this is the thought of ISIS.

SIEGEL: You're engaged in a rather - as international activities and the work of international organizations go, this is a rather young venture - that you're trying to assure people's human rights around the world. One could listen to our programs every day and read a good paper and come away utterly pessimistic about the prospect for the advance of human rights. I mean do you see anything out there - could you just quickly point to something that gives you optimism - that gives you faith that things are getting better and people are more concerned about human rights?

HUSSEIN: What is most extraordinary about my job is that you meet people with a courage that neither myself nor too many people that I know will show. You know, these are people - these human rights defenders and activists are people who are willing to forfeit their lives, their families - they're prepared to go to jail and serve long terms of imprisonment and for the basic idea that every human being has inalienable rights.

SIEGEL: An uphill struggle. An uphill struggle.

HUSSEIN: It is an uphill struggle, but if they can do it, then surely the rest of us can do it as well. This world will never be a safer more peaceful place unless those who care about these things actually fight for them.

SIEGEL: Commissioner Zeid Al Hussein, thank you very much for talking with us.

HUSSEIN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, Prince Zeid of Jordan, who is now the United Nations high commissioner for human rights. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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