The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, who has openly criticized powerful governments, including the Trump administration, has made the unusual decision to not seek a second four-year term, saying it “might involve bending a knee in supplication.”, the New York Times reported yesterday.
The decision by the official, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, a Jordanian prince and former diplomat, was conveyed in a short statement that was emailed to his staff early Wednesday and shared with The New York Times. His four-year term expires next September.
“After reflection, I have decided not to seek a second four-year term,” he wrote. “To do so, in the current geopolitical context, might involve bending a knee in supplication; muting a statement of advocacy; lessening the independence and integrity of my voice — which is your voice.”
Most United Nations officials serve as long as their mandate allows. Of the previous human rights chiefs, not one has served a full four-year second term.
It has been unclear for months whether Mr. al-Hussein’s boss, Secretary General António Guterres, would support him in seeking a second term or whether the five veto-wielding permanent members of the United Nations Security Council would use their influence to block it. Mr. al-Hussein has been critical of all of them.
He has been outspoken about the Russian-backed government of Syria. He has warned of the prospects of genocide by the Chinese-backed government of Myanmar. And he has called out the Trump administration several times, most pointedly on the travel ban against citizens of Muslim-majority countries and after the demonstrations by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va.
“Zeid has done a very impressive job,” said Harold Hongju Koh, a professor of international law at Yale Law School. “He’s operated in a very difficult environment and hasn’t hesitated to speak on very difficult issues.”
Mr. al-Hussein’s willingness to take on the powerful by name, along with what he has described as the “eye-watering stupidity” of abusive governments, made him few friends.
In his email to his staff, he said, “There are many months ahead of us: months of struggle, perhaps, and even grief — because although the past year has been arduous for many of us, it has been appalling for many of the people we serve.”
Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for Mr. Guterres, confirmed Mr. al-Hussein’s plans to leave after his term expires.
“The high commissioner informed the secretary general last week of his intention not to seek another term,” Mr. Dujarric said. “The high commissioner has always enjoyed the full support of the secretary general.”
Mr. al-Hussein proved confounding to many by defying classification: the first human rights chief from the Middle East but a sharp critic of violations by Arab governments; a Muslim who condemned Islamic militants; and a Jordanian prince who discarded his title to take the job and become an advocate for victims.
“Even more than his predecessors, Zeid fully embraced the role of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights as ‘conscience for the world,’ eloquently using his voice to become ‘a sort of nightmare’ for dictators, demagogues, and anti-democratic foes,” said Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, in New York.