Sri Lankans who have for years become familiar with Navaneethem (Navi) Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, would have heaved a sigh of relief as the retirement of the South African diplomat was announced this week. She will step down from her post in August.
Pillay was a formidable foe to contend with in Sri Lanka’s diplomatic stand-off with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). She was also instrumental in ensuring that resolutions against the country were adopted at the Council over the past three years.
Pillay’s successor was formally announced on Tuesday. He is Zeid Al-Hussein, a Jordanian diplomat with years of experience within the United Nations system. His outlook on Sri Lanka will come under intense scrutiny as the country gears itself for another tousle at the UNHRC early next year.
Navanetheem Pillay was widely perceived in this country as being hostile to Sri Lankan interests and being under the influence of western powers which carry clout in the United Nations. That she was also an ethnic Tamil did not help enhance her claims of impartiality.
By the end of Pillay’s six year tenure in office as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, local officials and policy-makers had reached the conclusion that Sri Lanka faced better prospects on her retirement, regardless of who replaced her at the UNHRC.
Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, twenty-three years younger than Pillay, hails from royal lineage in Jordan. He is the son of Prince Ra’ad bin Zeid, Head of the Royal Houses of Iraq and Syria and pretender to the Iraqi throne and his Swedish-born wife Margaretha Lind.
Prince Zeid was educated at Reed’s School, Surrey in the United Kingdom before gaining a Bachelor of Arts degree from John Hopkins University in the United States. Returning to Jordan, he received his commission as an officer in the Jordanian desert police and served with the force.
He was to return to Britain where he obtained a Ph.D. from Christ’s College, Cambridge University. He then began his career with the United Nations, serving political affairs officer in the United Nations Protection Force for former Yugoslavia from 1994 to1996.
Hussein then served as Jordan’s Deputy Permanent Representative at the United Nations, with the rank of Ambassador, from 1996 to 2000. He was elevated to the rank of Jordan’s Permanent Representative in 2000, a position he held until 2007.
It was while in this position that Hussein distinguished himself as an astute diplomat. He was appointed as President of the Assembly of State Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, serving in this position for four years.
In 2004, he was appointed by his government as Jordan’s representative and head of delegation, before the International Court of Justice in a dispute with Israel related to the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Also in 2004, Hussein was appointed by the United Nations Secretary General to chair a Panel of Experts to assist in the settlement of a boundary dispute between Benin and Niger through the International Court of Justice.
Hussein also chaired the Consultative Committee for the United Nations Development Fund for Women and was an advisor to the United Nations Secretary General on sexual exploitation and abuse in United Nations peacekeeping forces.
As his stature in the United Nations grew, Jordan recognised his value as a diplomat. He was appointed as Jordan’s Ambassador to the United States and non-resident Ambassador to Mexico. He served in this role from 2007 to 2010.
He returned to serve the United Nations in 2010, being appointed to the United Nations Peace Building Commission for Liberia. He also assisted in streamlining the activities of the International Criminal Court.
In January 2014 he was appointed President of the United Nations Security Council and is presently chairman of the Security Council’s 1533 and 1521 committees with regard to sanctions against two countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Liberia.
Knowledgeable in matters of international justice, Hussein has played a central role in the establishment of the International Criminal Court. He chaired negotiations to define individual offences falling under the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Receiving his appointment at the UNHRC, Hussein was quick to cite his roots. “I will be the first High Commissioner from the Asian continent and from the Muslim and Arab worlds,” he was to say in his acceptance speech.
After the world body approved his nomination with applause, Hussein joked: “My supportive wife told me to enjoy this moment. After all, she said, you are among friends who you’ve known for a very long time. Because when you start this job, she added, you may not have them for very long.”
Observers in Sri Lanka will do well to note that although he hails from Jordan, a country that is friendly towards Sri Lanka, Hussein’s special interests co-incide with matters that relate to Sri Lanka: allegations of war crimes.
Sri Lankans would naturally expect a degree of respite from the UNHRC with the retirement of Navanethem Pillay who, it was felt, made it a priority to accuse Sri Lanka at the slightest provocation. Even this week, Pillay was issuing statements regarding recent events in Aluthgama.
However, such expectations may be ill-founded. That is because Pillay has succeeded in not only initiating but also instituting proceedings against Sri Lanka through three successive resolutions at the UNHRC. Hussein will be compelled to carry these processes through to their conclusion.
Sri Lanka has maintained excellent relations with Middle-Eastern countries in general and with Jordan in particular. Whether this will influence Hussein remain to be seen, especially in the context of the current simmering religious tensions in the country.
Zeid Hussein assumes office as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at an extremely critical juncture for Sri Lanka which is trying to ward off an international war crimes probe. His is a name that will constantly make the headlines in Sri Lanka in the months and years ahead.