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The universal danger of ignoring human rights violations

In Syria, almost every conceivable atrocity has been committed in the last few years, says UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein. Al Hussein joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the U.S. role in the destruction of Raqqa, the investigation into a suspected chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime, as well as the “horrific” conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. State Department released its annual global accounting of the state of human rights today.

    The report blasted Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, specifically for being forces of instability. It also accused Syria's Bashar al-Assad of indiscriminate attacks on civilians, on hospitals, and of employing torture and using rape as a weapon of war.

    Criticism of Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, and its intervention in Yemen's brutal civil war was more muted.

    For an international look at these issues and more, I spoke a short time ago with the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein.

    I began by asking him about the brutal Syrian civil war.

  • Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein:

    Well, for the last few years, there's been an absolute disregard for the most minimal standards of principles in law.

    And we have seen every conceivable atrocity being committed by most parties to the conflict, but most particularly the Syrian government and its allies in terms of scale.

    That's not to say that the armed groups, and particularly the extremist movements, the terrorist movements, haven't themselves been complicit in the most and perpetrated the most awful atrocities.

    But the lion's share of the alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes that are almost certainly to be proven by a court of law in the future fall at the foot of the Syrian government.

    One must not forget that this whole crisis began with the torture, the abuse of children in Daraa, and it started from a severe violation of human rights and respect of the rights of those children. And from there, we have a crisis that is almost breaking the world in a very real, real sense.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, we're reading about another aspect of this crisis in Syria, today, The Washington Post reporting on Raqqa, which, of course, occupied by ISIS for so long.

    This report talks about the destruction of something like 11,000, 12,000 buildings or damage under U.S.-led airstrikes, and it goes on to say that the sentiment there is increasingly that the U.S. took part in this destruction, but is not taking responsibility for fixing it, for cleaning it up.

  • Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein:

    Yes, in all such operations, basic principles that govern the conduct of military forces, principles such as distinction, proportionality, have to be observed.

    And whenever you see actions like this, you expect there to be inquiries and investigations, such that you can then explain to the people why it is that civilians have fallen to the rockets and the bombardments.

    Otherwise, you're fighting a losing battle. Basically, as Nietzsche once said, if you're not careful when fighting monsters, you yourself become one. And that's the point that has to be driven at every time we sit with a particular government.

    Don't make it worse. You are there to protect the civilian population from armed extremists that have run amok. Don't, through criminal negligence, or even in certain cases, it could be deliberate — one doesn't know — don't make it worse. Investigate. And make the investigations transparent.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, another crisis zone in that connection, of course, is Yemen, where, again, terrible human suffering, civilians, women, children.

    What is your understanding of the situation there?

  • Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein:

    Well, likewise.

    I mean, it's been this horrific humanitarian catastrophe, and ongoing. We from the human rights side have been tasked by — from the Human Rights Council in Geneva to put together a group of eminent experts to investigate these attacks that have led to civilian casualties.

    There was a reported attack today of 20 people, civilians being killed just outside of Taiz. And this investigation will be made public in September. And one hopes that all sides to this horrific conflict in Yemen, the coalition on one side, the Houthis and the separatists in the south, that they understand that, one day, if they continue, or even if they don't continue, one day, they may well have to stand before a judge and account for the alleged crimes that have been committed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Of course, all this is happening at a time when we are seeing voices, leaders around the world who are showing disrespect for human rights, in parts of Eastern Europe, in Hungary, the Czech republic, the Philippines.

    How do you, in your role at the United Nations, speak to them? What's the role of the rest of the world when we see these kinds of forces arising?

  • Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein:

    Well, this year, we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And it's a document that was put by those who really suffered in two World Wars and the Holocaust.

    And in the second line, it says contempt and disregard for human rights contributed to the suffering of humanity. What we see now is exactly that on the part of many of the world's leaders, who should know better, that, as I said in respect of Syria, you have a conflict that has destroyed not just one part of the world, but maybe two.

    And it began with a severe human rights violation. And, eventually, all human rights violations, if they're not curtailed, they can turn into conflict. And it behooves us to pay much more attention.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, words for all of us to think about.

    The high commissioner at the United Nations for human rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, we thank you.

  • Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein:

    Thank you, Judy. Thank you.

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