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January 29, 2023

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein discusses human rights intervention at FAS series

By LUBNA AZMI | February 24, 2022



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The Hopkins Foreign Affairs Symposium (FAS) hosted Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein as part of its 25th speaker series, “Shattered Reality: Reimagining the Future,” on Feb. 17. Department of Political Science Professor of Internal Relations Steven David led the conversation with Hussein, the former United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights and former representative of Jordan to the UN.

Phoebe More, a member of the FAS development committee, noted that the theme for this year’s series is thinking about the world after COVID-19. The speakers will discuss a broad range of spheres of life like women’s activism, foreign policy, healthcare and, for this event, international human rights. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, Co-Executive Director of FAS Maiss Mohamed discussed the challenge of transitioning into her current role. 

“Every year the leadership — the co-executive directors — really set the tone for how the symposium is going to go that year, so I would say it's been challenging because we didn't get to see the executive directors last year face to face,” she said. “We didn’t get to have that interaction and that development for then me and Daphne Tang to be executive directors and learn from previous ones because they both graduated.”

Hussein began his talk by differentiating the commitments of human rights activists from those of humanitarians through an analogy of a bully on a playground: The humanitarian’s job is to help the victim while the human rights activist’s job is to stand up to the bully. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, member of the FAS programming committee Emma Petite noted her appreciation that Hussein used this moment to teach the audience about the difference. 

“I didn't really know what to expect going into it. I had done some background reading on him. I also didn't know he had gone to Hopkins,” she said. “The base takeaway I had was [the analogy]. I thought that was really interesting.”

Hussein believes that governments should intervene in international violations of human rights because such violations reveal how foreign governments can harm not only their own people but also people from other nations. 

According to Hussein, some countries in the Global South claim that the standard of human rights imposed by the UN is a Western notion. He elaborated on their potential reasoning, including the concept of relativism of human rights.

“This cultural relativism argument emerged, and you can respond to it in a number of ways. The victim never tells you it's okay to be treated like that. You'll hear the argument from the government but never from the victim. It's just basic human dignity,” he said.

Junior Shawn Wiggins agreed that it is important to have a universal standard of human rights across the world but thought the event lacked nuance on some countries’ criticism of the UN’s methods and motives behind addressing human rights violations.

“Some people would be critical of the use of the rights of, [for example], women or LGBTQ communities as kind of a cynical cover for some of our geopolitical interests and our economic interests abroad,” he said. “This would potentially make some wonder, is the problem that we’re not addressing human rights or is it [that we’re not addressing them] in good faith?”

During his talk, Hussein emphasized the courage it takes to address human rights and spoke to what solutions would help to create a more just world.

“The world is not void of great young minds. We actually have too many,” he said. “We have many gifted technical specialists, but we need gifted technical specialists with a deep moral core and ethics who are prepared to be courageous.”

Hussein mentioned the UN’s difficulty in checking its biases. He mentioned that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees files more statements against the rightwing government in Brazil than the leftwing government in Venezuela. 

Senior Veena Thamilselvan shared how important it was to her that Hussein emphasized that academics take public moral stands regarding human rights in an interview with The News-Letter. 

“Scientists have such a powerful position in our communities with so much respect attached to them. It’s so important we say something and that’s a piece I really took with me,” she said.

Thamilselvan also appreciated how Hussein discussed how many of the most powerful and influential actors in the UN who commit UN Human Rights Council violations are often not held accountable.

“[Hussein] really speaks to the truth of the matter where the big players are the ones controlling human rights discussions,” she said. “If they're not willing to play the game and hold themselves accountable, then how can they expect any other country to own in and pay into or buy into this idea of the UN being a regulatory body?”

More highlighted that FAS members have had to work hard to promote their events in an interview with The News-Letter. 

“A lot of people are used to Zoom events now,” she said. “Something that I’ve run into is trying to make sure that people this semester know that this is in person and that it is open to everyone, even people from the Baltimore community.”

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