United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights talks threats to human rights, need for student leadership

Wednesday, November 6, 2019 - 8:08pm

Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein of Jordan, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks on "Global Challenges to Human Rights Today" in Weiser Hall Wednesday afternoon.

Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein of Jordan, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks on "Global Challenges to Human Rights Today" in Weiser Hall Wednesday afternoon. Buy this photo
Rita Vega/Daily

Around two hundred people gathered in Weiser Hall Wednesday night to hear Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, speak on the world’s greatest challenges to human rights. 

Sociology Professor Kiyoteru Tsutsui, director of the Donia Human Rights Center, said the Distinguished Lecture series invites speakers to campus who have both experience in human rights and the ability to speak broadly about the topic. Al Hussein’s record fighting for human rights globally, Tsutsui said, make him an ideal lecturer. 

“I can’t think of anybody who is a better spokesperson for human rights than the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights,” Tsutsui said. 

Al Hussein began his lecture by defining universal human rights but quickly turned to criticize academics and universities for not doing enough to protect them. 

“On the face of it, you would have to believe that (human rights) are a weak force,” Al Hussein said. “The mere fact that most universities don’t have human rights centers, and if they have human rights centers, they are small, usually underfunded, usually lodged in a law faculty, and even there, they struggle to find a position of prominence … Voldemort would be so proud.”  

Al Hussein identified nine main threats to human rights today: China, Russia, the United States under President Trump, authoritarian-minded leaders around the world, white supremacists, conservatives, leading academics who attack the human rights agenda without proposing alternatives and economic elites. 

He argued as each of these actors work to erode the global infrastructure built to protect human rights, codifying protections into law is more important than ever. Al Hussein illustrated this point with the story of René Cassin, one of the original drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who fought in World War I and lost over a dozen family members in the Holocaust. 

“He knew the devil of violence that slithers through all of us, and that is why we need law,” Al Hussein said. “And yet there is another factor in play today. Because human rights law is being trapped in the fault line separating competing ideologies … a liberal order, grounded in positive and natural law, and a more conservative one, rejecting the former’s more recent advances.”  

Al Hussein concluded his talk with a call to action for students. Young people, he said, must vote and be leaders in fighting for human rights. 

“We don’t need bright people,” said Al Hussein. “We’re in need of smart people with a deep conscience. Smart people who are brave, and smart people who are willing to self-sacrifice …We need people with a deep reservoir of ethical thinking and a conscience that will make a difference.”

LSA junior Lana Charara told The Daily she was inspired by the speaker’s work and message. 

“I just really admire the work (the speaker) has done in the past for human rights and his passion for these (kinds) of issues,” Charara said. “I was just really excited when I saw that he was speaking here.”