UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. secretary-general said Friday he will appoint Jordan's ambassador as the new high commissioner for human rights, bringing to that post a voice from the Middle East at a time when such rights are under strain in some countries in the region.
Ban Ki-moon's office announced that Prince Zeid al Hussein, a longtime diplomat and former U.N. peacekeeper, has been nominated to replace Navi Pillay.
Pillay has been a forceful spokeswoman, most recently this week when she was the most prominent U.N. official to speak out on the 25th anniversary of China's crushing of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, in which hundreds were killed. Ban made no comment this week on the Tiananmen crackdown.
The South African-born Pillay's term as high commissioner for human rights was originally set to end in 2012 but was extended for two years.
Prince Zeid, who has been ambassador to both the U.N. and the United States, announced in late April he would resign as U.N. ambassador. He has represented Jordan on the Security Council, a rotating council seat that expires at the end of 2015.
He was a candidate for secretary-general back when Ban was chosen for the job. In his career, Prince Zeid has built a reputation as being strong on issues such as international justice and sexual violence.
"I think that, given that he comes from Mideast, it brings that advantage and burden in this post," said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "Obviously a challenge is that he has to be willing to speak frankly about the record of silencing civil society, crushing peaceful protests, which is endemic in that region at this stage."
Syria is a special concern. Hicks said that as ambassador, Prince Zeid has shown interest in addressing "horrific abuses" in the three-year conflict, and he was among the Security Council members pushing for the council's resolution in February on humanitarian access.
Jordan, along with Australia and Luxembourg, has been working on a follow-up draft resolution that would authorize the delivery of humanitarian aid into Syria through four border crossings without approval from the government.
"I hope that he doesn't feel constrained in exercising a very vocal role on that crisis," Hicks said. She added that his Muslim background could help in other crises, such as that of the stateless Rohingya Muslims that have been victims of Buddhist mobs in Myanmar.
Fellow diplomats offered praise Friday. "Great choice. A committed defender of human rights and international law," France's Gerard Araud tweeted.
Prince Zeid in April made a powerful speech as the Security Council marked the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, challenging the council and the international community to act on the crisis in Central African Republic, which faces unprecedented violence between Christians and Muslims.
Thousands of U.N. peacekeepers were approved for Central African Republic after months of council discussion, but they will not arrive until in September.
"It is ... clear we still do not care enough; not enough to act immediately, overwhelmingly, in those cases where an intervention is needed," Prince Zeid said in his speech.
He added, "We need the courage to understand that our methods of work in this Council generate a sense of routine, which is deadening and dangerous."
Jordan this week appointed Dina Kawar as its new representative to the U.N.