The United Nations’ chief human rights agency in Geneva, headed by one of the President Trump’s most vocal critics, has quietly established a new beachhead in Washington and laid plans for another in San Francisco.
The move by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) took place even though the U.N. itself has seen no “compelling operational need” for the Washington outpost. According to internal OHCHR documents, it also occurred more than a year before the U.N. General Assembly refused to approve the expansion.
The office does not show up on an official online U.N. list of offices in Washington that is comprehensive enough to include a similar “liaison office” for another U.N. agency, UN Women. When asked about the mysterious new office, a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres declined to comment.
The U.S. State Department told Fox News only that “the U.S. is aware that there are OHCHR offices in the United States.”
A State Department official added that “we have a very strong relationship with the OHCHR and regularly engage with the OHCHR at their headquarters in Geneva and in their offices in the U.S. to discuss the most pressing human rights situations around the globe. The OHCHR performs valuable work in promoting human rights, including through its technical assistance and training programs, and we support many of its efforts.”
The “Twilight Zone” existence of the new office appears to be the product of a quiet collaboration between the Obama-era State Department and a stubborn effort by the U.N.’s volatile, departing Human Rights Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, to go ahead with the expansion regardless of U.N. member states’ positions.
The idea was initially broached by Zeid’s office in late 2015, as the creation of a new “regional hub” in Washington aimed at “widening the democratic space” with the assistance of undefined “National Human Rights Institutions.”
According to internal OHCHR documents, going ahead with the Washington outpost was approved on March 13, 2016, at a meeting of Zeid’s Senior Management Team, headed by Zeid’s deputy, Kate Gilmore, a former bureaucrat with the United Nations Population Fund and with Amnesty International.
Minutes of the meeting say that the decision was “to take advantage of the openness of the Obama administration to establish a presence in Washington.” That was an apparent reference to an October, 2015, letter to Zeid’s office from Obama’s Ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Pamela Hamamoto.
Said Hamamoto: “We welcome this initiative and look forward to working closely together in Washington.”
The letter added, in effect, that contrary to what Zeid’s office thought, OHCHR needed no new permissions from the U.S. government to open such an office, just notification of staffing and assignments as they occurred.
The Washington branch and any other OHCHR outcroppings were, in the Obama State Department’s opinion, covered by the broad agreements covering the U.N. in general.
Occupation of the one-person office was noted as completed in June 2016. OHCHR’s representative is currently Mac Darrow, a senior OHCHR official.
OHCHR’s decision and action, however, was more than a year before the U.N. General Assembly decided in December 2017 to postpone indefinitely any discussion of a Zeid-proposed “regional restructuring,” which included the Washington posting.
The same restructuring proposal had been tossed back by the U.N. in November 2016 for lack of detail.
The overall aim of the Washington move, as well as the subsequent Silicon Valley initiative, appears to be to advance Zeid’s ambitions for the human rights agency despite the U.N.’s own cold shoulder – and, as Zeid initially sought in 2015, to bring the U.S. into closer proximity to the U.N.’s tangled, proliferating and often contradictory notions of international human rights law.
It is also apparently definitely intended as part of Zeid’s legacy. A member of Jordan’s ruling royal family, Zeid ends his four-year term in late August. He announced last December he would not seek a second term, because “to do so, in the current geopolitical context, might involve bending a knee in supplication; muting a statement of advocacy; lessening the independence and integrity of my voice — which is your voice."
In other words, continuing to work at OHCHR might suddenly be beneath Zeid’s principles.
Zeid’s decision to step down from his post may not have caused great grief for Guterres. Among other things, Guterres is now dealing with the decision in June of the Trump Administration, the U.N.’s biggest single financial supporter, to withdraw from the dictator-heavy U.N. Human Rights Council, which, like Zeid’s OHCHR, is based in Geneva.
The Human Rights Council exists separately from Zeid’s human rights office, but nonetheless supplies some of its mandates. True to his undiplomatic form, when U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Council, Zeid tweeted that it was “disappointing, if not really surprising, news.”
“Given the state of human rights in today’s world, the U.S. should be stepping up, not stepping back,” he added.
That was an imaginative reinterpretation of Haley’s remarks, which concentrated on the Council as “the U.N.’s biggest failure,” stated that the withdrawal followed 18 months of futile U.S. attempts at reform, and affirmed America’s continued engagement on human rights issues.
Zeid has been much more undiplomatic, and unflattering, about President Trump. Even before the November 2016 presidential election, the human rights chief charged that Trump shared, along with a number of other aspiring conservative politicians in Europe, tools such as “half-truths and oversimplification,” which they also had in common with ISIS (Zeid used the common Arabic name of ISIS, Da’esh.)
Last November, Zeid sniped publicly at “populists” who spread “hatred through tweets,” which a U.N. official confirmed as including Trump. He also said his office was “watching the United States very closely” under the current White House occupant.
But Zeid’s high regard for his voice as an advocate, and his close eye on the U.S., apparently does not extend to publicly touting much about the existence of his new Washington office.
In response to questions from Fox News, a spokesperson for OHCHR said the office at the moment is “responsible for OHCHR’s engagement with international financial institutions” –such things as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Inter-American Development Bank.
But that particular rationale for establishing a Washington office was explicitly rejected a little over 18 months ago by the U.N.’s advisory committee on budget and administrative questions, or ACABQ, when Zeid offered it in the first place.
In November 2016, the ACABQ told Zeid that “any liaison functions” for those institutions could be undertaken by OHCHR’s 33-person office at the U.N. Secretariat in New York.
The ACABQ also recommended that any new regional office of the human rights agency that would include coverage of the U.S. should be located in Barbados, where Zeid originally wanted to establish a sub-office.
That was two months after internal OHCHR documents indicate that the liaison office in Washington was already established.
Last December, the U.N. General Assembly as a whole postponed indefinitely any discussion of Zeid’s ambitious regional plan.
Internal OHCHR documents examined by Fox News, however, also show that Zeid’s plans for the office extended significantly further than simple engagement with “international financial institutions.”
According to a document approved by Zeid himself in August 2016, the initial office plan called for “external partners” to play a “critical role” in OHCHR efforts, which included “U.N. system partners, development and human rights NGOs and the media. Further partnerships will be explored with Washington D.C.-based foundations, think tanks and NGOs.”
All of those ideas, however, depended on General Assembly approval of Zeid’s overall restructuring proposal, which did not occur.
Currently, an OHCHR spokesperson describes the San Francisco operation for Fox News as “one staff member on temporary assignment engaging with the technology sector on human rights in the digital sphere.”
Internal documents show, however, that the Silicon Valley part of Zeid’s unofficial U.S. beachhead is intended to be a jumping off point for something considerably bigger—a wholesale engagement of U.S. based technology companies in OHCHR’s efforts and priorities.
An internal strategic document dated March 2018, and apparently still a work in progress at the time, foresaw a much more sustained and expansive presence In Silicon Valley that would, among other things, induce high-tech companies to “engage…in more effectively preventing and addressing risks from their operations, products and services.”
It adds: “In parallel, the U.N. presence would forge links between academic institutions, labs, and the tech industry with U.N. human rights monitoring and investigations, bolstering the capacity of the U.N. to actively work towards addressing many of the world’s most pressing human rights situations.”
The document also says that “the human rights framework provides a foundation of universally accepted norms to which the vast majority of governments already have legally binding obligations.”
One of the countries that frequently makes explicit reservations, or limits, to those “legally binding obligations,” is the U.S.—often on constitutional grounds linked to the federal separation of powers.
The working document foresees ramping up the “temporary” OHCHR representation to a full representative, additional technical positions, and a “locally recruited support staff.”
The cost of the expanded operation $1.2 million to $1.5 million for the next three years, which is effectively the limit of OHCHR’s upcoming strategic plan.
The document indicates that the plan’s authors are casting around for non-government donors—including foundations and “high net worth individuals,” or HNWIs—to pay for it.
One sideline commentator on the document, an OHCHR official named Scott Campbell, warns that “we should keep [the office’s profile] fairly low in order to avoid unnecessary attention to political/legal issues.” He suggests discussing the issue with HC—the High Commissioner.
Campbell’s LinkedIn page lists him as “Currently on assignment to Silicon Valley area, California, United States.”
As it happens, Zeid and OHCHR have already forged new links with a donor who sympathizes with many of his ambitions—the Geneva-based Clooney Foundation for Justice (CFJ), created by Hollywood star George Clooney and his wife Amal.
In November 2017, OHCHR and the CFJ signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on development of a “distance-learning, interactive online tool on trial monitoring,” to be made available “at no cost to individuals which either CFJ or OHCHR put forward.”
At the end of the online training, OHCHR would attach its name to a certificate of completion. The MOU carefully notes that “this certificate does not entitle the bearer to represent the United Nations or OHCHR”—though it clearly attaches some of OHCHR’s international prestige to the accomplishment.
The memo thus links OHCHR at the hip with the CFJ, a feat perhaps made easier by the fact that CFJ’s executive director is David Pressman, formerly the Obama Administration’s Ambassador to the United Nations Security Council and close colleague of Obama’s controversial U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power.
A so-called TrialWatch project on CJF’s website announces the development of a tool very similar to the one described in the MOU, but without any mention of OHCHR, even though a joint education project with UNICEF on CFJ’s home page prominently mentions that U.N. organization.
CFJ has already gained some notoriety for its $1 million support for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an organization that specializes in calling out alleged hate groups and other extremists—sometimes even if they aren’t. Last month, SPLC coughed up $3.375 million and a public apology to a moderate Muslim activist in London for including him in a so-called “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists.” CJF said its own money went to SPLC “to expand its relentless efforts to combat hate groups in the United States.
Zeid has already shown more than once that he can be relentless—especially when acting against OHCHR staffers who have not toed what he thinks is the appropriate reporting line.
In 2015, more or less when he was first pushing his Washington human rights “hub,” Zeid was taken to task by an independent panel that had investigated U.N. responses to sexual crimes against young children by non-U.N. peacekeepers in the Central African Republic.
The scandal was disclosed by a member of Zeid’s staff, a Swedish diplomat named Anders Kompass, who bypassed the U.N.’s normal chain of command to notify French authorities in a bid to prevent further child abuse, and then told his superiors what he had done.
Kompass was later asked to resign by one of Zeid’s deputies, and subsequently suspended while a U.N. investigation, ordered by Zeid, continued. A U.N. judge thereafter ordered Kompass returned to his job. Kompass eventually went back to his native Swedish foreign ministry, after charging that “lack of accountability is entrenched in the United Nations.”
Zeid was said by the independent investigators to have had a “single-minded determination to pursue an investigation” against Kompass, which the human rights chief has strongly denied. A close colleague of Kompass, Miranda Brown, who aided in his efforts, lost her job and says her whistleblower claims were ignored. She has been requesting reinstatement ever since.
Zeid’s chief spokesperson, Rupert Colville, in a series of off-the-record comments early this year to an unnamed British journalist, called Kompass and Brown “extraordinarily self-centered and dishonest people,” and said their “duplicity…utterly disgusts me, more than anyone else I have worked with in my thirty-year career.”
A third OHCHR staffer, Emma Reilly, has charged that she received something of the reverse Anders Kompass treatment, after reporting that a senior OHCHR staffer had passed on to Chinese authorities the names of Chinese dissidents invited to a Human Rights Council meeting in 2013. The dissidents never made their flight from Beijing.
The official who passed on the information to Chinese authorities was not punished, but Reilly was denied whistleblower status and she was only granted a two-year, rather than more normal five-year, extension on her contract last January. She has since been transferred to another section of OHCHR.
Those cases too, along with OHCHR’s murky U.S. initiatives, may end up as a significant part of Zeid’s legacy.