The Cable

The Human Rights Prince

Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, a member of Jordan's royal family and its ambassador to the United Nations, has been tapped as the U.N.'s next High Commissioner for Human Rights, placing a senior Arab diplomat who has pushed for a war crimes investigation in Syria into the world's most prominent human rights job.

Prince Zeid, 50, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for the U.N.'s top job in 2006, has extensive human rights credentials, having served from 2002 to 2005 as president of the International Criminal Court's membership body, which promotes international compliance with the court's prosecutions and is responsible for amendments to the treaty establishing the international tribunal. He's also shown a willingness to take on the U.N. itself: In 2004, he led a wide-ranging internal review of sexual misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers. Prince Zeid also recently co-sponsored a French-drafted U.N. resolution calling for an ICC investigation in Syria. The measure was vetoed by Russia and China, but the superpowers nevertheless backed Prince Zeid's appointment for the human rights job.

Prince Zeid's nomination -- which requires approval by the 193-member U.N. General Assembly -- comes after the world body's five largest powers, including the United States, signed off on the move. While the council's so-called P5 -- Russia, China, Britain, France, and the United States -- have no formal role in selecting the U.N. human rights chief, they have traditionally been consulted by the U.N. secretary-general to make sure they have no serious objections to the pick.

If confirmed, as seems virtually certain, Prince Zeid would be charged with calling attention to instances of widespread human rights violations in places like Syria and South Sudan and then rallying international support for holding perpetrators to account for their crimes. The current high commissioner, Navi Pillay, has overseen a commission of inquiry into rights abuses in Syria and sought to rally support for an ICC prosecution of alleged Syrian war criminals. The high commissioner also leads a broad network of human rights specialists who carry out investigations into rights abuses committed in most countries where the U.N. has peacekeeping missions.

In choosing Prince Zeid, Ban displayed his preference for diplomatic hires, passing over several other prominent human rights advocates, including Asma Jahangir, a former president of Pakistan's Supreme Court Bar Association who served for more than a decade as a U.N. human rights expert on arbitrary executions and freedom of religion.

Human rights advocates reacted favorably to Prince Reid's selection for the job.

"Prince Zeid's work on sexual violence and his leadership on the international criminal court give a good foundation for this new role," said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "As states in his region silence civil society and crush peaceful protests, the real test for Prince Zeid will be his willingness to stand up to abusive governments and speak out for those facing injustice and human rights violations worldwide."

Prince Zeid -- a cousin of Jordan's King Abdullah II -- worked as a U.N. political officer in Bosnia during the war in the 1990s and served two stints as Jordan's U.N. ambassador. As ambassador, Prince Zeid helped spearhead an effort to adopt a U.N. General Assembly resolution calling on the U.N. to conduct a comprehensive review of its failure to stop the massacre of several thousand Bosnian men in Srebrenica.

Last year, Prince Zeid led a quixotic campaign to boycott a U.N. conference on international justice -- sponsored by Vuk Jeremic of Serbia, then-president of the U.N. General Assembly -- because he believed Serbia would manipulate the forum and use it as a platform for unfairly criticizing the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The United States and Canada subsequently joined the boycott. The conference went ahead without them.

Prince Zeid told Foreign Policy at the time that Jeremic "had done little to conceal his motives" of transforming the event into a forum for bashing the international tribunal. "I was in the former Yugoslavia from 1994 to 1996 and, in view of what I know to be true, will also, together with my delegation, be nowhere near the event."

Within the U.N.'s diplomatic community, Prince Zeid has emerged as the sharpest critic of the U.N.'s own human rights failings. In a recent Security Council meeting addressing sexual abuse against women, Prince Zeid expressed frustration that the U.N. and its member states have failed to hold U.N. peacekeepers to account for rights abuses.

"Let us be clear about what it is we are saying by our inaction," he told the Security Council in April. "We are saying that it is okay by us when a United Nations civilian staff member commits rape in a United Nations peacekeeping mission, where the host country has no functioning judiciary and when the country of nationality cannot exercise its criminal jurisdiction extraterritorially over the accused because it has no law allowing it to do so. Is that our view?"

UN Photo

The Cable

Russia and China Really Do Like NATO's Occupation of Afghanistan

The United States is winding down combat operations in Afghanistan and suddenly Russia and China -- who thought the United States had no business there in the first place -- don't want U.S. troops to just turn off the lights behind them.

Senior Russian and Chinese officials have encouraged Afghanistan's leaders to sign the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, according to a senior Western diplomat who maintains contact with the Afghan leadership. If signed, the pact would keep U.S. forces playing at least a limited military role for the foreseeable future.

Russia's top U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, meanwhile, told reporters at U.N. headquarters Tuesday that his government is concerned that the White House exit plan is not linked to an improvement of the situation on the ground. Churkin maintains that the United Nations and Western governments minimize the extent of Afghanistan's problems, noting that opium production is soaring and Islamic extremism is leaking out the border and into Central Asia.

"Russia has a lot of worries about what it is going to come after the withdrawal," Churkin said. "We are critical of the work which has been done so far by the ... NATO-led military presence in Afghanistan. In our view they have clearly not been able to fulfill their mandate [of tamping down terrorism] and [are] leaving the country in a situation of considerable military turmoil."

Western officials say that Russian criticism is patently hypocritical.

"Their timeline when they left Afghanistan [in the '80s] is 'we leave Afghanistan tomorrow -- bye-bye,'" said a diplomat from a NATO country. "I would call that a double standard."

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the diplomat said Russia has routinely "played this game of bashing NATO" over everything from civilian casualties to setbacks in the fight against Afghanistan's thriving opium market.

However, Russia quietly supported aspects of the operation, such as approving the military mission's mandate and helping NATO transport material to Afghanistan. And Moscow even eased its long-standing objection to offering the Taliban concessions, approving U.S.-backed initiatives in the U.N. Security Council lifting the travel ban on former Taliban militants and thawing their assets if they demonstrated support for the Afghan government.

Russia's "biggest interest is stability," the official said. "They are never easy but in the end they have always joined the consensus that it's better to have us there than not. They have far too much interest in having security."

The handwringing comes less than two weeks after President Barack Obama declared at Bagram Airport in Afghanistan that the United States will limit its operation to equipping and training Afghan forces and pursuing its war on the al Qaeda terror network. If Afghanistan's new government signs the Bilateral Security Agreement before combat operations formally cease at year's end, the White House will leave fewer than 10,000 troops.

"The perception is that the United States intervened, created a mess, and is now leaving the region responsible for it," said Scott Smith, a former U.N official who served in Afghanistan and now heads the U.S. Institute for Peace's Afghanistan and Central Asia program.

"I think everybody is in agreement that a premature and un-strategic withdrawal that leaves Afghanistan with greater risk of falling into greater chaos is in nobody's interest.

"I've spoken to Chinese officials who say they don't want us in the region forever but 'we don't want to be the cleaner of the mess you made in Afghanistan,'" Smith added.

In March, China's ambassador to the U.N., Liu Jieyi, registered Beijing's concerns.

"The security situation in Afghanistan remains fragile, as represented by the major increases in various types of security incidents since last year," Liu told the Security Council. "We express our concerns over rising civilians casualties and we support capacity-building for Afghanistan's national security and police forces to enable them to effectively fulfill safety and security responsibilities. The parties concerned should fully take into account the need to protect the security and stability of Afghanistan and steadily and responsibly reduce their armed forces in order to ensure smooth progress in Afghanistan's security transition."

Smith said that regional players are drawing parallels with the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.

The Soviets continued to provide financial and military assistance to help prop up Afghanistan's then-pro-Russian communist president, Mohammad Najibullah, who survived until the Soviet handouts stopped in 1992 and a coalition of armed mujahideen fighters took the capital.

"There is concern that the U.S.-backed government may collapse in similarly dramatic fashion," Smith said. Najibullah eventually was taken from his refuge on a U.N. compound and strung up by Taliban fighters.

"It is our belief that certain people continue to convince themselves that the situation is fine," Churkin told the council in March.

For Russia, the stakes are high in Afghanistan, which has been a source of heroin exports to Russia and a training ground for Islamic jihadists whom Moscow fears.

Kai Eide, a senior Norwegian diplomat who served as the U.N. special representative to Afghanistan and was in Kabul recently, said Russia's anxiety is growing.

"The Russians today are very skeptical about the U.S. withdrawal plan," he told Foreign Policy. "They are worried about the political vacuum, and the Taliban and [the] drug trade becoming even stronger. I have a sense that the Russians have become more and more interested in seeing some troops remain."

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