Top UN human rights official refuses to 'bend knee' after US clash, says won't seek a second term

Mr Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told staff in an e-mail he would not bargain away his agency's integrity. PHOTO: AFP

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) - The United Nations' top human rights official, a sharp critic of US President Donald Trump, declared on Wednesday (Dec 20) that he will not tone down his message to seek re-election in his post.

Mr Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told staff in an e-mail he would not bargain away his agency's integrity when his job comes up for renewal in August.

Earlier this week, in an interview with AFP, the Jordanian prince had rejected the idea of "wheeling and dealing" with political players to secure a second four-year term in Geneva.

And in an e-mail to staff, seen by AFP, he wrote: "After reflection, I have decided not to seek a second four-year term."

"In the current geo-political context," to stay "might involve bending a knee in supplication; muting a statement of advocacy", he added.

Mr Hussein did not mention Mr Trump by name, but he has reportedly been under pressure from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to tone down his human rights criticism of Washington.

Even as Mr Hussein's e-mail became public, Mr Trump was threatening to cut off US funding to countries that vote against his Israel policy at a UN General Assembly emergency session on Thursday.

During Mr Trump's election campaign, Mr Hussein had blasted the political newcomer's populist promise to ban Muslims from visiting or migrating to the United States as "grossly irresponsible".

In August, Mr Hussein took a swipe at Mr Trump over his depiction of media reports as "fake news", saying it could amount to incitement against journalists.

He compared the US president to a bus driver "careening down a mountain path".

From a human rights perspective, he said, "it seems to be reckless driving."

The United States remains the single biggest donor to UN coffers and Mr Guterres has been keen to develop ties with the US administration to sustain the broader UN agenda.

In his interview with AFP, Mr Hussein voiced concern over the far-right tilt of Austria's new coalition government and took aim at politicians willing to turn to "the peddling of fear as a means of getting to political office".

Mr Trump's comments have "seemed to find an echo in other countries where leaders who were inclined to shut down civil society or the media were resorting to the same language", he said. "I think we all recognise how dangerous that is."

Human rights groups have praised Mr Hussein as a strong voice at the United Nations who spoke with credibility on rights violations in Syria and Myanmar, among many conflicts.

He was the first UN official to describe the Myanmar army's campaign against Muslim Rohingya as ethnic cleansing.

Mr Hussein is a "stellar exception in a world where populists and enemies of human rights have gotten a lot of air play", said Mr Louis Charbonneau, UN director for Human Rights Watch.

"It's a sorry indictment of the regard for which human rights are held when the high commissioner feels like he would have to compromise with his message and his actions in order to get a second term," said Mr Charbonneau.

"I hope the UN will find a replacement who can continue in this style in an extremely challenging time for human rights defenders."

The 53-year-old career diplomat was appointed as UN rights chief in 2014 under former UN chief Ban Ki Moon, replacing Mr Navi Pillay of South Africa.

He was Jordan's UN ambassador from 2000 to 2007 and served as a UN political affairs officer in the UN peace mission in former Yugoslavia, during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

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