In one, he is traveling in a United Nations convoy when the car of a Bosnian Serb paramilitary fighter pulls alongside, and on its hood is the severed head of a Bosnian Muslim child adorned with a United Nations peacekeeper’s blue helmet.
That episode and the plight of two young girls shot by a sniper in Sarajevo have left him decades later, as the new United Nations high commissioner for human rights, still asking, “How can you comprehend this?”
“I mean there’s a degree of villainy that is so disturbing and so beyond our ability to process it mentally that it leaves you asking questions,” he said in a recent interview. “It leaves you with the feeling that you’ve got to try and do what you can at some stage to prevent this.”
A prince in Jordan’s reigning royal family, Mr. Zeid struck some human rights activists as an improbable choice for a job upholding the rights of the world’s downtrodden. It could be seen as an unusual outcome for someone who had started professional life as a policeman, with five years in Jordan’s desert police before joining the United Nations.
Yet those familiar with his career applauded the choice. “He had all the attributes we wanted,” Kenneth Roth, the Human Rights Watch executive director, remarked of the prince, who has agreed to drop his royal title in his new post. “He is a man of stature and principle with a long and demonstrated commitment to human rights.”
“He’s someone who was seared by the experience of the U.N. in Bosnia,” said Nader Mousavizadeh, a close friend and former adviser to the former secretary general, Kofi Annan. “Zeid came out very much with a view that if the U.N. was to stand for anything, it would have to stand for the victims of aggression.”
He is also “an absolutely cool-blooded realist about what is politically possible,” added David Harland, a former United Nations colleague who now heads the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based conflict mediation organization, attributing some of Mr. Zeid’s achievements to “charm, clarity and a sharp knife.”
The question among human rights experts was whether Mr. Zeid would use his office as a pulpit to publicly criticize the misdeeds of nations, as did his predecessor, Navi Pillay, a doughty South African jurist, or opt for the more traditional approach of discreet back-room conversations.
Mr. Zeid’s answer, four months into the job, seems to be pragmatic use of all available levers. By working diplomatic channels, he will make his first official country visit next week to the United States, which, according to Ms. Pillay’s staff, never even replied to her repeated requests for a visit. He believes negotiations are making headway on a visit to China, another prominent country that never found a convenient date to receive Ms. Pillay during her six years in the office.
Still, Mr. Zeid saw the controversy stirred up by Ms. Pillay as a “telling signal that this was an office on the rise,” and living up to a pledge given in his first statement on the job, his public comments have been unflinching: condemning the “meanspirited house of blood” of the Islamic State’s extremists; denouncing Sri Lanka’s outgoing government for obstructing the work of an inquiry into war crimes allegations and bluntly reminding the United States of its obligation under international law to prosecute all those responsible for C.I.A. torture, including the policy makers and higher-ups who gave the orders as well as those who carried out the interrogations.
LIKE his predecessors in the office, Mr. Zeid has taken criticism for his stands, including personal attacks. “If it’s anything it’s childish, it’s a cheap shot and it’s not acceptable,” he said. “‘Deal with the substance’ is the message I would like to focus on.”
He resists the efforts of some nations to hold his office to a narrow interpretation of its mandate. “I think they don’t necessarily understand how the international system has come about and how it exists,” he said. “If all of us stuck rigidly to mandates given us by governments, there would be no peace on this planet.”
It’s a view shaped by his years of experience of multilateral negotiations in the United Nations and a conviction that individuals, not governments, have played the key part in creating the international order. “Everything we see in agreements across the spectrum comes from the space between where your instructions end and you as a thinking negotiator invest your own thought,” he said.
Mr. Zeid’s record at the United Nations illustrates the point. He spent years pushing it to account for its missteps in the Balkans, specifically its failure to avert the slaughter of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica. “He was the one who absolutely didn’t let it go, who said we have to understand what happened and we have to understand what we can learn from this, that it doesn’t happen again,” recalled Mr. Harland, who worked with Mr. Zeid on the report that eventually was completed.
Later, Mr. Zeid led negotiations that would lead to creation of the International Criminal Court in 2002, and as president of the Assembly of States Parties — the court’s managing body — fended off the Bush administration’s effort to emasculate the fledgling court. “It’s not governments that brought this court about, it really was 60 individuals who decided they wanted this court,” he said. “I’m not sure if there had been 60 other individuals representing the same governments you would have had it.”
“I still look back and think it was the most intense, wonderful experience,” Mr. Zeid remarked. “One realized early on that this is what those who had established Nuremberg had aspired for,” he recalled, referring to the trials of Nazi war criminals after World War II. “This was going to be a permanent feature that would limit the excesses of humankind in war or peace, regarding the violence they visit on each other.”
THAT remains a work in progress, but in taking over the human rights portfolio, Mr. Zeid now has the task of holding countries to account across the full spectrum of economic and social rights.
Ending conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and the Israel-Palestinian conflict, stand out as human rights priorities, Mr. Zeid said, but so are the government failures that allow six million children under 5 years old to die of preventable diseases every year. “If ISIL killed six million people a year, you wouldn’t be able to talk about anything else,” he said, referring to the extremist Islamic State, “so why is it that we don’t look aggressively at the right to better health.”
One minor detail no one bothered to tell Mr. Zeid before he took up the job was that the office was running out of money. It depends on the voluntary contributions of member countries for 60 percent of its funding, and some see little merit in helping to bankroll a critic. So as one of his first actions, even before he could turn to the cause of defending rights, he had to cut 50 posts. “Not a great start. Mr. Popularity from Day 1,” he said.
This year he will find himself embroiled in budget battles, trying for a slice larger than the 3 percent, or $265 million, the United Nations now devotes to human rights and peacekeeping, despite their outsize role in the organization’s activities.
“It’s a trifle,” Mr. Zeid said. “You can hardly convince yourself that it’s a serious commitment by states, given the enormity of the task before us.”