GENEVA – The outgoing U.N. human rights chief said Monday that the Security Council's five permanent members wield too much power at the United Nations, warning the imbalance must change to avert possible "collapse" of the world body "at great cost to the international community."
Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein decried the sense among some at the United Nations that the "pentarchy" of Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States "is running too much of the business." He was alluding to the countries' ability to veto resolutions in cases like alleged injustices in Syria's war or by Israeli forces against Palestinians.
"When they cooperate things can move; when they don't everything becomes stuck and the organization in general becomes so marginal to the resolution of these sorts of horrific conflicts that we see," Zeid said. "That has to change: In the end the organization can collapse at great cost to the international community."
"There is a sense that the permanent five have created a logjam by dint of their proclivity to use the veto, and the paralysis — less so the U.K. and France — but of course, the U.S., Russia and China quite frequently," he told news agency journalists at his lakeside Geneva office as his term nears its end on Aug. 31.
Zeid, a Jordanian prince, did not seek a new four-year term as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has chosen former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to replace Zeid.
In the wide-ranging briefing, Zeid reminisced about late former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and drew distinction between the rights chief's job and the top U.N. post — calling the Secretary-General position more about "peace and security" than vocally highlighting rights abuses.
Zeid has drawn plaudits among many human rights advocates for his frankness, but in so doing has ruffled many feathers among many governments, including some of the most powerful ones. He repeated his criticism of U.S. President Trump's frequent condemnation of journalists and expressed confusion about where the U.S. leader was headed with his policies and the "vision" of some populist European leaders.
"I'm not into making friends with governments," Zeid said. "But when we feel we need to speak, we will speak."
Often mild-mannered and eloquent, Zeid bared frustrations about the inability to get authorization for U.N. rights investigators to visit places like Venezuela or Nicaragua, or the plodding efforts to pass a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on countries like war-torn Yemen.
His comments exemplified his call for reforms at a world body whose shortcomings have been exposed over issues like Syria's devastating 7-1/2-year war and rising nationalism. He also alluded to the lessons of World War II that, he suggested, appeared to be fading with time.
"My sense is the further away we get from those historical and dreadful experiences, the more we tend to play fast and loose with the institutions created to prevent repetition," he said.
When he took office in 2014, Zeid recalled, beheadings by the Islamic State group were garnering headlines. Then followed the flood of Syrian migrants into Europe, and a relative rise of right-wing movements there. And many people were blindsided by the fallout on human rights.
"I don't think many of us perceived that it would all combine to create this sort of pressure on the human rights movement and the return of a sort of demagoguery and an authoritarianism to countries that hitherto we thought had moved firmly into the democratic space," he said.
"All states are works in progress and one or two generations of reckless politicians can destroy any and every state," he said. "It's applicable to the U.S. as well."