Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein keynote

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein gave a keynote address on Zoom for the department of international student life’s International Education Month on Nov. 11, 2020. Al Hussein discussed human rights in America's past, present and future.

In the wake of the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other Black people by the police, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the United States revealed itself to the world.

In his Wednesday evening virtual keynote address for the department of international student life’s International Education Month, Al Hussein, a former U.N. high commissioner for human rights, discussed how a nation’s history is an integral part of understanding its present situation and guiding its future.

He related the current turmoil and civil unrest in the U.S. to an unresolved historical narrative and lack of national consensus on human rights and race amongst all Americans.

Over the summer, the National Judicial College surveyed 634 U.S. judges about whether systemic racism exists in the criminal justice system. 65% of the judges answered yes.

Al Hussein said the U.S. criminal justice system reflects this lack of consensus in its inability to set aside racial prejudice in favor of unbiased judgement. 

“Every grievance must be studied in its own context, and only by virtue of a sustained discussion anchored in historical reflections can the narratives be reconciled and the needed societal adjustments be welcomed by all,” Al Hussein said.

Amanda Murdie, the department head of international affairs and moderator for the discussion portion of the event, asked Al Hussein how the significant changes in the U.S.’s approach to history and race can be accomplished.

The former high commissioner suggested the U.S. form a national commission on race and history with the power to hold open hearings and propose amendments to laws to improve the state of human rights.

He added that the commission should pick up where President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Kerner Commission left off in 1968.

The Kerner Commission was established by President Johnson to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots in the U. S. and to provide recommendations to improve race relations in the future.

Under the Biden administration, Al Hussein said the U.S. has the opportunity to pursue such a commission and renew the country's damaged commitment to human rights.

He reiterated a point he made four years ago in The New York Times at the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency — Trump’s divisive rhetoric is asynchronous with the values of human rights.

Al Hussein also suggested adding human rights education to early curriculum to promote an understanding of their significance.

“We need to embroider at least a basic understanding of what human rights mean,” Al Hussein said. 

He emphasized throughout his discussion the sentiment that human rights are a powerful concept. 

“Can we not all agree that there is nothing more inspiring than when an inconvenient truth comes from a single courageous voice?” he said. “Ultimately, we ought to be able to agree that progress in the form of securing greater social justice is good. It is only the pace that needs to be thought through and argued over.”