UN human rights chief: Victims in every region need more ICC, not less

In this exclusive interview on the occasion of our website launch, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein discusses the pressing need for the world to address growing discrimination, deprivation, humiliation and exclusion of people, and fulfil their rights – including their right to a just and impartial rule of law. Jordanian Prince Zeid, a key figure in the early years of the International Criminal Court (ICC), stresses that world leaders must veer away from the temptation of isolationism and scapegoating, and come together in order to work cooperatively on real solutions. We couldn't agree more.

To many it seems the world has somehow arrived at a pre-World War II situation. How can this happen when we have such an array of human rights law and institutions? 

The answer is both simple and complex. Simple, because of course it is not enough to have laws and institutions: they must be followed through with action, in policy and practise. And that can be complex. International conventions can be drawn up, summits can be called, resounding resolutions can be voted – but if there is not concerted action, then all we have is a little ink on a page.

The current era is one of striking paradoxes. At the same time, we have landmark agreements which can potentially transform the human rights of millions of people, including the 2030 Agenda, which offers enormous hope for good. And yet in every region, we are seeing national political leaders veering away from cooperative solutions and digging deeper into isolation and scapegoating.

I agree that we are seeing an acceleration of distinct events which are driven by fear, and that they feed into a broader tide of deepening hostility. In the context of this kind of disarray, some people will look for scapegoats, instead of addressing the real problems, which stem notably from long-term deficits of democratic governance, essential freedom and social dialogue. Rather than serve their communities and countries, honour the rights of the people, allay their fears and build better systems, some political leaders clearly feel it is easier to stoke the mob with a fabricated vision of enemies, preferably vulnerable and powerless ones. So yes, I agree that the analogy with the 1930s in Europe may be apt.  

This trend of hostility, growing violence and an isolationist mindset profoundly undermines multilateral institutions and action. It contributes to a crisis of legitimacy for many of the international institutions built by States over the past 70 years. Most recently, we have seen three countries announce their intention to withdraw from the Rome Statute. This is clearly driven by complex political agendas, but one factor, I think, is this urge to blame others – outsiders – for various social problems. It is a deeply worrying development.

You recently spoke strongly of wars stemming from a "factory of deceit, bigotry, and ethnic nationalism" and driven by populist leaders. What role is there for the ICC in addressing and preventing such tendencies?

I spoke not only of wars, but of violence that is driven by this wave of scapegoating and hatred. Violence in daily life – people who are beaten up on the street for speaking a foreign language or even simply because they look different – and structural violence, in the sense of discrimination and exclusion, which encourage people to retract into defensive communities, and fuel grievance. 

The system of accountability put in place with the adoption of the Rome Statute contributes to ensuring that those violations and abuses are repressed, that those responsible are effectively brought to justice, and that the victims obtain remedy.  Insisting on the respect of the rule of law is key to preserving our capacity to live together. So I strongly believe that in our current context, every region of the world needs more of the ICC – not less.

Do you think the media is doing enough to counter populism and demogoguery? What is the role of citizen- and social media here? 

The media, ideally, should be strong, robust and independent. Its role is not to quash views but to provide factual reports and a balanced range of opinions. The free flow of information should always be the norm, and rather than suppressing speech, we should be emphasising counter-speech. However, speech on the basis of race, nationality or religion which amounts to advocacy or incitement of violence or discrimination is prohibited by the ICCPR, which calls for proportional and targeted limitation of such speech, as determined by severity, intent, causation, context and so on. Practice in this regard varies very widely according to the country involved. In many countries, I would say there needs to be a much closer look at this in terms of traditional media – but in several of those countries, deplorably, even national leaders deploy this kind of speech.

Regarding digital and social media, it is important to emphasise that the Internet should not be viewed as a lawless space. My Office, along with many others, conducts a dialogue with various social media regarding online hate speech –which can be extremely virulent and does sometimes clearly incite violence, including against specific individuals and groups. However, there are enormous challenges regarding the regulation of speech in the virtual, digital space. So at the same time, and I really want to emphasise this, what we need to do is encourage, and nourish, the expression of counter-speech, principled views which defend human dignity – not only on social media, but in the street and everywhere people go. We are currently working on a large-scale campaign that will seek to empower the broadest possible expression of human rights principles by ordinary people.

With the collapse of the ICC Kenya cases, may are questioning the Court's ability to prosecute high government offifcials and politically contentious cases. What do you say to this? 

The ICC was given and retains the jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute anyone, without any distinction based on official capacity. This includes Heads of State and other senior officials, irrespective of any immunity that may be provided for under national laws.  This is in line with the role and place of international criminal jurisdictions since the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunal. And it sends the powerful message that no one, truly no one, is above the law. 

Clearly, investigating and prosecuting high ranking leaders is challenging.  It is to be expected that the higher the profile and responsibilities of those brought to justice, the more difficult it is for a court to obtain the support it needs to deliver justice. It is indeed difficult for the ICC to prosecute high government officials and politically contentious cases, primarily because the ICC is so dependent on States’ cooperation.

Currently, the ICC is under attack. But its continued ability to prosecute perpetrators, no matter how high-ranking, is essential. The Court needs to continue its work, and in that struggle the ICC can count on the support of many among us, from States to public opinion, civil society organisations and victims.

The perception is that ICC and/or IHL judicial accountability has been side-lined in the Middle-East/North Africa at a time when accountability for widespread grave crimes is most needed. How do we move forward?

Violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law are intensifying in multiple contexts across the Middle-East and North Africa, including Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. I fear that many of these may amount to international crimes. My Office is deeply concerned by this and we continue to monitor, report, assist and advocate a return to principled action, in respect for human rights and human dignity. 

Several mechanisms are involved in documenting these violations and crimes, many supported by my Office. To take the example of Syria, the International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has reported strong suspicions that the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) is committing genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Syria.  A recent report jointly compiled by UNAMI and my Office also concluded that violations and abuses committed by ISIL in Iraq may amount to genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. It details testimony of Yezidi survivors of ISIL atrocities in Iraq since the attack on Sinjar in August 2014, including accounts of systematic and widespread killings, sexual violence and sexual slavery, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, forced conversions and forced displacement among others.  

I am also concerned by the current operation in Aleppo by the Syrian Government and its allies.  The attacks currently launched on Aleppo, in particular those against civilian areas, medical facilities and personnel, and humanitarian workers, if established in a court, may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Many of us have repeatedly called for these abuses, violations and crimes to be promptly, independently, impartially and thoroughly investigated.  The Government of Iraq has of course the primary responsibility to deliver justice to its people. But since it faces impossible challenges in this task, I believe that it should seek the help of the ICC, under the complementarity principle. I have repeatedly advised Iraq to accede to the Rome Statute and, in the meantime, to accept its jurisdiction with retroactive effect. Another possibility would be for the Security Council to refer these allegations to the ICC.

Similarly, in Syria, I have repeatedly called for the Security Council to refer the matter to the ICC and I deplore its failure to do so. Despite the lack of traction to support accountability, we must remain steady in our demands. The victims of these crimes deserve full accountability and justice.

Having extensive experience with both systems, how can the United Nations better serve the interests and objectives of the ICC?

The United Nations and the ICC have different but related mandates.  Both seek to contribute to justice and to the UN Charter’s affirmation of “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person”.  The United Nations played a key role in the establishment of the ICC and continues to support it, in line with the 2014 Relationship Agreement.  The cooperation between the UN and the ICC is crucial as the ICC deals with the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole, as referred to in the Rome Statute, which are crimes that threaten the World’s peace and security.

The Rome Statute recognizes that the UN Security Council can refer to the ICC Prosecutor situations in which international crimes appear to have been committed. There are several such situations that the Security Council could and I believe should refer to the ICC, including Syria, as just mentioned.

I have repeatedly indicated that it is my firm belief that the UN Security Council should, without any further delay, adopt criteria to restrain members from using the veto when there are serious concerns that war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide may have been committed.  The time has come for the Security Council to provide strong leadership.

Civil society and human rights groups, activists and journalists are facing unprecedented levels of repression and opposition by governments in more and more countries in the world. What must be done to protect these allies of democracy and the rule of law?

Denying people space for peaceful, legal and constructive engagement does not make their feelings of anger, despair and dissatisfaction go away. To the contrary, the repression of civil society simply pushes that dissatisfaction underground, where it can fester. Depending on the context, extremist views may thrive in such a context, because they may appear to be the only option left. So my first point, always, is to emphasise that civil society is the strongest possible antidote against extremism. Broad views, including dissenting views, build stronger societies, not weaker ones. In terms of what we can do, I am convinced that public opinion is a massive force for pressure, and it can change State policy. The monitoring of the civil society space by the public – nationally and internationally – is essential to maintain an international spotlight on these acts of repression. When we fall back into indifference, and that spotlight fades, then there is very little that can be done. So a great deal of our work is aimed at building capacity for civil society groups on the ground to monitor, report, federate and advocate, both locally and globally.

How do you perceive the work of civil society and the Coalition for the ICC in the Rome Statute system?

Civil society organizations played a key role in the establishment of the ICC and even in its conception. I would like to once again pay tribute to the exceptional work and commitment demonstrated by numerous organizations, starting of course with the CICC, when the Rome Statute was being drafted. Since then, they have continued tirelessly to support the Court, advocate for it, and encourage States to ratify or accede to the Rome Statute.

Civil society groups can also play a key role in the system of accountability established with the adoption of the Rome Statute. They can document and record international crimes and help preserve evidence; in fact they may be the only ‘eyes’ on the ground as crimes are being committed. Many civil society actors on the ground do remarkable and courageous work in establishing facts, bringing violations and crimes to light, and advocating for accountability.

Civil society activists can also be the relay between local communities and victims on the one hand, and the ICC on the other -- conveying the views and expectations of the victims and their communities to the ICC, and bringing back a better understanding of the ICC and its limits, notably jurisdictions, to help manage expectations.

What role do you see for newly-elected Secretary General António Guterres in building links with international justice and conflict prevention?

The Secretary General-designate is a person of principle, with enormous experience of the suffering created by conflict and other causes of displacement. He knows that we will not sustain this planet with selfish greed, political gamesmanship and bloodshed. We need to address the discrimination, deprivation, humiliation and exclusion of people, and fulfil their rights – including their right to a just and impartial rule of law. The question is the will of the world's leaders to veer away from the temptation of isolationism and scapegoating, and come together in order to work cooperatively on real solutions.


Who is Prince Zeid?

A career tackling human rights violations 

In 2014, Prince Zeid was unanimously approved as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, succeeding Navi Pillay of South Africa.

Prince Zeid’s career also includes work for the UN force in the former Yugoslavia, where he helped ensure the creation of a report documenting the causes of the genocide in Srebrenica.

Throughout his career, he has fought against the scourge of sexual and gender-based violence, leading investigations into such crimes allegedly committed by UN peacekeepers and insisting on a zero-tolerance policy for such offenses.

As Jordan’s representative at the UN, Prince Zeid has a legacy of working to unveil widespread human rights violations in places and steering countries away from victor’s justice.

A key figure in the establishment of the ICC

After the Rome Statute entered into force in 2002 until 2005, Prince Zeid served as the first president of the Assembly of States Parties (ASP)—a governing body that provides oversight to the Court, considers and votes on amendments to the Statute, and decides the ICC’s budget, among other functions.

Under his leadership, the Court’s membership grew significantly and began its judicial proceedings.

Prince Zeid’s continued to play an important role in the Rome Statute system. He served as chairman of the Working Group on the Crime of Aggression at the Review Conference of the Rome Statute in Kampala, Uganda in 2010.

The preparatory work done by the Working Group led to the adoption of the crime of aggression by states parties at the Review Conference.