Democracy Lab

The Scandal of Ambassador Zeid

Why the new United Nations human rights advocate is the wrong man for the job.

On June 16, the 193 member states of the United Nations General Assembly unanimously approved Prince Zeid Raad Zeid al-Hussein of Jordan as the new High Commissioner for Human Rights, charged with spearheading the U.N.'s human rights activities.

The nomination of longtime career diplomat Ambassador Zeid (shown in the photo above at right) has been largely met with approval from major human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch's executive director Kenneth Roth tweeted that Zeid had "a strong rights record." Suzanne Nossel, former director of Amnesty International USA and current executive director of PEN America, also wrote a mostly positive piece on Ambassador Zeid in Foreign Policy.

These positive reactions are based on Ambassador Zeid's role in advancing the International Criminal Court and seeking to hold U.N. peacekeeping personnel accountable for sexual violence. Diplomats from Western democracies also highlight Zeid's Muslim and Arab background combined with his progressive credentials as crucial for bridging the gap between the U.N.'s Western states and Asian (particularly Islamic) countries.

But there are grounds for concern about how Ambassador Zeid will treat what is arguably the most consequential human right: the right to freedom of expression. Jordan's voting record on the highly divisive attempt to force U.N. states to criminalize the "defamation of religion" leaves a huge question mark about how aggressively Ambassador Zeid will defend free speech in the sphere of religion, where this right is constantly under attack at both the national and international level.

From 1999-2010, member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) successfully tabled resolutions on "combating defamation of religion" as part of their campaign to implement a global blasphemy ban under human rights law, in the Human Rights Council (known as the U.N. Commission on Human Rights until 2006) and the General Assembly. During both of Ambassador Zeid's periods as Jordan's ambassador to the U.N., Jordan voted in favor of these resolutions when they were introduced at the General Assembly. Both of the resolutions passed. The 2010 resolution commended "the recent steps taken by Member States to protect freedom of religion through the enactment or strengthening of domestic frameworks and legislation to prevent the vilification of religions and the negative stereotyping of religious groups" and urged the international community to follow suit.

Jordan's voting record in the U.N. is consistent with the country's domestic record on blasphemy. In 2006, two newspaper editors who reprinted cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad previously published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten were sentenced to two months of imprisonment. In 2011, Jordan initiated a trial in absentia against Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, the creator of the offending cartoon, as well as 19 Danish journalists and editors who had published the cartoon in various news outlets. In 2009, Jordanian poet Eslam Samhan was sentenced to imprisonment and a fine for blasphemy after having included Quranic verses in his poetry. It was developments such as these that the 2010 resolution on defamation of religion hailed and sought to enact at the international level, turning human rights into a weapon against religious dissent and nonconformism rather than principles protecting the freedom of conscience and pluralism.

In 2011, the United States and the OIC brokered a compromise, Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, that aims to protect individuals, rather than religions, from religious discrimination and intolerance, and to promote "open, constructive and respectful debate." While this uneasy truce stopped the parade of anti-defamation resolutions, it did not end efforts by OIC members to prosecute those deemed to have insulted Islam. Only in 2013, the ministers of justice of the League of Arab States approved an extremely wide-ranging draft blasphemy law that not only aims at criminalizing allegedly blasphemous utterances (including miming!) but also envisaged extraterritorial jurisdiction, meaning that someone deemed to have blasphemed in the United States or Europe would be liable to prosecution in Arab League member states. OIC member states like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt continue to aggressively enforce blasphemy and religious insult laws, often targeting members of vulnerable religious minorities or free thinkers straying from state-sanctioned orthodoxy (most of whom are Muslims). According to the 2013 Freedom of Thought Report, different forms of "blasphemy" are still a crime in 55 countries (including several European ones, only some of which enforce them). According to these laws, blasphemers can end up in prison in 39 of those countries; in six of them blasphemy qualifies as a capital offense.

While it is hardly surprising that Jordan voted along with the OIC block on defamation of religion, it is fair to ask if Ambassador Zeid agreed with his government's disdain for the freedom of expression or was simply toeing the line determined in Amman. Either way, the ability to stand firm on human rights principles in the face of overwhelming pressure is the quality most essential for a successful High Commissioner. Ambassador Zeid's record on freedom of expression suggests either too great a willingness to compromise on human rights principles or a lack of civil courage, neither of which would recommend him for the job. To dispel these fears and pre-empt any OIC attempts to reintroduce the concept of defamation (or guises thereof), Ambassador Zeid should move swiftly to declare in no uncertain terms that freedom of expression includes the right to criticize religion even when offensive to religious feelings. That would be in line with the efforts of his predecessor, Navi Pillay, as well as the U.N.'s Human Rights Committee and the U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and Freedom of Religion or Belief. Most importantly it would also be consistent with international human rights law. No other position should be acceptable for the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights.

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Great Iraqi Jail Break

Iraq’s jihadist army has figured out a surefire way to sow chaos: by opening prison doors.

Over the last few weeks, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) snatched a huge chunk of Iraqi territory for itself, making the terrorist group de facto rulers of millions of people in an area the size of Jordan. As they tore through the country, ISIS militants also sacked Iraqi prisons, feeing over 1,200 inmates from two facilities in Mosul and another 300 from Tikrit since the start of their violent campaign.

This strategy is crippling Iraq's ability to govern effectively. After all, without prisons, the justice system fails -- and without a system of justice, Iraq's ability to remain a coherent political unit and develop a representative democracy falls apart. (In the photo above, volunteers from al-Abbas brigades head to defend holy Shiite sites against attack by the extremists.)

The attacks on prisons pose a formidable challenge: With each raid, ISIS replenishes its ranks with veteran insurgents, making the group an even more effective fighting force. The 6,000 or so ISIS fighters now rampaging across Iraq have access to even more leaders, hardened killers, and master bomb makers who were once languishing in the country's prisons. These include many terrorists elite U.S. military forces caught over the years and then handed over to the Iraqi government when the United States turned over custody of its prison facilities in 2010. These hard men have been tested both inside and outside of jail and return to the fight as much more capable cogs in the terrorist machine.

The prison breaks are astonishing -- but not new. A few years ago, ISIS chief Abu Du'a (a.k.a. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) actually announced that sacking prisons was his group's most important mission. In July 2012, Abu Du'a released an audio statement entitled "Destroying the Gates," in which he addressed ISIS members, saying: "We remind you of your top priority, which is to release the Muslim prisoners everywhere, and making the pursuit, chase, and killing of their butchers from amongst the judges, detectives, and guards to be on top of the list."

In September 2012, Abu Du'a's group carried out its first prison break operation. He freed over 100 prisoners from a prison in Tikrit, including 47 death row inmates. They struck a few more prisons throughout the winter and spring, but in July 2013 they hit their stride, releasing between 500 and 1,000 prisoners from Abu Ghraib. Escapees included ISIS's top military commander, Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi, as well as a number of other senior leaders awaiting execution. Iraqi forces later caught up with al-Bilawi and killed him prior to the current ISIS offensive.

At the same time as the Abu Ghraib operation, ISIS also assaulted another prison in neighboring Taji, but failed. A suicide strike that October against the Kurdistan Regional Government's Interior Ministry in Erbil aimed to free ISIS extremists, but was also unsuccessful. Taken in the aggregate, these prison breaks were, nonetheless, an unmitigated counterterrorism disaster since. As one intelligence analyst grimly noted, "We just lost track of everyone we didn't kill who was in al Qaeda during the surge."

It remains unclear how many escapees were extremists and how many were common criminals. Nevertheless, even prisoners convicted of criminal charges provide advantages to the terrorist group, because they could have been recruited during their incarceration. This extremist indoctrination occurs even under the best of circumstances. For example, when the United States ran detention facilities like Camp Bucca in Umm Qasr, hard-core extremist detainees were allowed for years to mingle with the regular prison population, radicalizing many and leading Bing West to call these facilities "jihad universities." Presumably, Iraqi-managed prisons are just as poorly run. And even if common criminals were able to resist jihadist persuasion efforts while in prison, they may now feel indebted to their "liberators."

The inability of Iraq to maintain its prison system suggests that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will have a hard time preventing the country from completely unraveling. For one thing, if Iraq can't maintain and protect Abu Ghraib -- renamed Baghdad Central Prison in 2009 and considered the best-run prison in the country -- then there's little hope that it can incarcerate any of these ISIS extremists if they are recaptured. And of course the new release of prisoners will likely cause crime levels to spike. Saddam Hussein opened his prisons a few months prior to the U.S. invasion, and many believe the organized criminal elements released into society were responsible for much of the looting that occurred as Iraq fell.

A mass prisoner release is also demoralizing for local leaders and security forces, because they know they will become targets for retribution. For instance, a month following the Abu Ghraib breakout, one death-row escapee led a group of militants to his brother's house and murdered him. His brother was a police officer who had turned the convict in three years beforehand. One man, a tribal leader who participated in the U.S.-backed anti-al Qaeda Anbar Awakening, remarked: "Of course I'm afraid of retribution.... Their first targets will be leaders in the awakening like me." And on June 3, a suicide bomber killed Sheik Mohammed Khamis Abu Risha, the leader of the Awakening Council in Ramadi. If the state cannot protect its own friendly forces from violence, it should not be surprised when its security personnel abandon their posts en masse.

Jails and prisons are the clearest signs of some degree of law and order. As the late Professor Stephen Livingstone once wrote: "The existence of prisons is demonstrable proof that, in the end, the law does have some consequences, that it does exist." An Iraq without defendable prisons severely weakens the one of the three pillars of a competent justice system: law enforcement, judicial institutions, and the prison system. ISIS is shredding the very social contract of Iraq's nation-state -- one that was barely holding together in the first place. No civilization -- Jeffersonian democracies, theocratic dictatorships, socialist collectives, and everything in between -- can remain in this state of chaos for too long.

Iraq is confronting a mortal crisis. Even if its demoralized army rediscovers its backbone and actually battles ISIS (with assistance from Iranian and Shiite militias), Baghdad will still have to scramble to house its captured detainees before it can build permanent prisons up again.

This effort will take time, money, patience, and expertise -- all of which are in short supply in Iraq today. Even the most peaceful democracies have prisons and guards in order to house criminal elements and preserve order; without order, there is no country.

An Iraq without prisons is very quickly heading down that path.

MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/Getty Images