The United Nations Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein held a special Facebook Live event on December 10, 2016, in honor of Human Rights Day. Posts with questions from the public were made prior to the event, discussing human rights issues from Nigeria to Iran and Syria. Many want to know what the UN is going to do about a variety of issues, including those within the Middle East.
The current situation in Syria is a daily struggle for individuals to find the basic necessities, including medical care, food and clean water. Various public works systems have stopped or are severely limited in urban areas, due to the fighting and destruction that has resulted. Additionally, Iranian troops continue to assist Assad in his attempts to remain in power, despite his poor record on human rights.
“The suffering of the Syrian people only seems to be getting worse and they are suffering crimes of epic proportion. The international community has let them down,” said Hussein, who also mentioned his office is not allowed into the country. “We need to bring this war to an end.”
The UN is trying to set up a prosecutor’s office to bring individuals to justice for what Hussein called “the crimes of historic proportion”.
The discussion turned to the international courts and accountability, especially when the court seems to be just going after what the moderator called “small fish” in the arena of human rights violations. Hussein said the court has continued to shed light on various issues, but he also noted that the Security Council can politicize these issues.
“There shouldn’t be two or three different standards for countries in the Middle East,” said Hussein when questioned about the muted response to the issues in Yemen, where it seems as if the international community is going easier on Yemen than Syria. “We try to be firm and fair regardless of the size of the country, but it becomes much more political in other areas of the UN,” said Hussein.
Additionally, information has come to light in the Montazeri recordings that shows high officials within the Iranian regime sat on death commissions, sentencing 30,000 political prisoners to executions in 1988. Many human rights organizations have condemned this as a crime against humanity, including Amnesty International, the International League for Human Rights (FIDH) and Reporters Without Borders. While this topic was not addressed, Iran’s human rights record was mentioned among others, particularly in terms of freedom of speech and political prisoners.
“There are people that are really hurting. We want to confront governments on their rights records,” said Hussein. “The freedom of speech is foundational as a check on tyranny.”
As one of the first steps to fight against these outrages, it is important for individuals to know what their rights are and then work with activists and reporters to address them, said Hussein in answer to the question of what more can be done beyond condemning these acts. The moderator also questioned if the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights wasn’t guided by the political clout of specific member nations.
Hussein admitted that his office is denied access to various countries, although they hear reports that are very alarming to them. They want to send a human rights advisor to Pakistan, for example, but have not been given permission by that government to do so.
“Most countries are making efforts on the Universal Human Rights, but we also see violations as well,” said Hussein. His office presses the issues with governments, but at the same time, asking them to respect their own people.
In Iran, the use of the death penalty is used over a 1,000 times a year, for narcotics violations. Hussein believes that innocent people may be executed and it is a punishment that cannot be undone. “You can’t unexecute an individual,” he said. The use of this type of punishment should be suspended, because Hussein didn’t believe it was a quality deterrent to crime. He also mentioned that they have a dialogue with the Iranian government on this issue, but they have also spoken out about it publicly.
He also made it clear that his office is distinct from the Human Rights Council and the governments that sit on that council. Even governments that sit on the council may be pressed by his office on their own human rights records, especially if violations come to light. He also spoke repeatedly about the importance of gathering information and facts to take to the international courts, essentially the need to build a case demonstrating that the violations occurred for the international community.
Many of the questions focused on human rights issues that have not received much media attention, if any at all. Hussein mentioned that he has been vocal on many of these issues, but again, he cited a lack of access. Civilians are caught in the middle between governments and those who oppose them. “We need the international community to support ending these conflicts,” said Hussein.
With many high priority cases of political prisoners, the Office of Human Rights may publicize the situation or they may have a discussion with the government. The question they face at times is what will get the best results, putting the government on the spot by highlighting multiple cases or just focusing on one high profile case in hopes of moving the government on others.
Additionally, the discussion led to refugees and the situation that they face in terms of humanitarian efforts and the human rights violations that they have endured. “We want to see accountability on an international level,” said Hussein. In the end, he highlighted that all human rights violations were troubling and that he hoped individuals and countries would speak out for all humans suffering from these violations.