As the United Nations’ top human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has been a voice of reason, of compassion, of law and of outrage. He has truly captured the desperation and injustice suffered by millions across the globe, whether as victims of war and, torture or as targets of persecution by their own governments.
Despite fierce backlash to progress on sexual and reproductive health rights during his tenure (2014-2018), High Commissioner Zeid never wavered in his commitment to women’s autonomy and gender equality. From El Salvador to Saudi Arabia, he has argued for the rights of women and girls while celebrating the resiliency and achievements of women advocates.
As High Commissioner Zeid passes the torch to Michelle Bachelet, the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) recognizes his service, dedication, and leadership, as we did in awarding him with the 2018 IWHC Visionary Leadership Award, a recognition of leaders or institutions invaluable to women’s advocacy and champions of the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls.
Time and again, High Commissioner Zeid has reminded us that it is women who experience the gravest human rights abuses: “Human rights violations are often gender-based. Women, and young women especially, suffer the most,” he stated during a recent discussion at the United Nations Correspondents Association.
His comprehensive understanding of women’s rights is rightly inclusive of sexual and reproductive rights as fundamental human rights that are central to achieving gender equality. In fact, during his tenure, High Commissioner Zeid strived to combat child marriage, urged accountability for violence against women, and stressed the importance of sexual and reproductive health for sustainable development. He understood the class elements of access to abortion—that it is poor women who go to prison, and poor women who die as a consequence of clandestine services. Simply put, High Commissioner Zeid served as a voice for the poor and disenfranchised, pushing governments to fulfill their human rights obligations.
After visiting El Salvador in November 2017, High Commissioner Zeid was “shaken by the draconian impact by the country’s absolute prohibition on abortion,” and vocal in his condemnation of the country’s harsh punishment of women who undergo the procedure. Calling for the review of all cases where women have been jailed for abortion-related offenses, High Commissioner Zeid requested that El Salvador halt application of its oppressive legislation.
High Commissioner Zeid leaves the post at a precarious time for human rights. From repressive legislation that seeks to further restrict women’s autonomy, to efforts to shrink space for civil society, conservative pushback has revealed the fragility of human rights advances and the need for sustained vigilance. In his own words, “fundamental freedoms are in retreat in every region.” Throughout his tenure, High Commissioner Zeid revealed these human rights abuses to the world, drawing attention to both the severe consequences of rolling back women’s rights and the courageous activism of women’s movements. For High Commissioner Zeid, “attacks on civil society are most worrying,” because it is civil society, not governments, that is the boldest defender of human rights around the world.
With the departure of Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, women’s rights defenders are bidding farewell to a loyal ally. As we continue to serve as a bold and independent voice for women and girls, IWHC thanks High Commissioner Zeid for his tireless advocacy and looks forward to working alongside new UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, a proven defender of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images for IWHC.