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The UN’s human rights chief has had enough— and now he’s speaking out, writes Tom Fletcher

Prospect Portrait


The Hague, September 2016. The speech from the UN high commissioner for human rights was not expected to ruffle feathers. A mild appeal to our better angels and then back to the canapés—traditionally, as one UN speechwriter puts it, “we don’t use adjectives, we don’t name names.”

But instead of platitudes, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called out a parade of “xenophobes, populists and racists”: Wilders, Farage, Orbán, Le Pen, Trump and—in the same breath—Islamic State (IS). He shook with rage. The room was stunned into silence, then burst into a standing ovation. One ambassador present calls it “a moment of pure authenticity, emotion and reason.” A friend calls it Zeid’s “quantum leap.” But this was not simply a frustrated UN chief shooting from the hip. “He knew exactly what he was doing”, says his wife, Sarah.

There is an air of battered decency to the UN’s top official on human rights. Partly jet lag and the debilitating wade through undrained swamps of bureaucratic treacle. Partly bearing witness to the worst of humanity. As a junior UN official in Bosnia, he was profoundly marked by the sight of the skull of a child as a trophy on a warlord’s car. In a recent statement on Myanmar, he asked: “What kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk. And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by security forces who should be protecting her?”

But the weariness is also something deeper. This is a man watching his worldview come under relentless assault. Zeid was a global citizen before the idea went in and then out of fashion. His grandmother was the Turkish painter Fahrelnissa Zeid, his mother Swedish and his Iraqi father is now Lord Chamberlain of Jordan. He was also an outsider before he became an insider. An Arab who took up rugby to survive his English private school. A Hashemite prince who struggled through military service and grew a beard to appear less European in the Royal court.

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In Prospect’s August issue: Zoe Williams argues that the first thing we need to do if we are to remain in the EU is to tackle the reasons why so many wanted out—namely pay and conditions at home and the impact of unfettered capitalism. Prospect’s Alex Dean and Tom Clark interviewed former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg who says the liberal centre should keep the faith—there is another way to work closely with Europe, but the immigration question is central to finding that solution. Meanwhile, a group of writers including Wolfgang Münchau, Shashank Joshi and Owen Hatherley explain some of the pitfalls, prizes and things you hadn’t thought about when it comes to the UK’s relationship with the EU. Elsewhere in the issue: Former UK diplomat Tom Fletcher profiles the out-going UN human rights chief who is causing a stir by saying the things nobody else would dare. Steve Bloomfield asks what happened to Seymour Hersh—how did the legendary journalist come to echo the thoughts and ideas of Bashar al-Assad; and Phil Ball examines the crisis of male infertility asking: where has all the sperm gone?