H.R.H. Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein is the current President and CEO of the International Peace Institute. He is also a member of The Elders, a group of prominent global leaders formed by Nelson Mandela that engages themselves for peacekeeping, justice, and human rights.


Prince Zeid Raad was the sixth High Commissioner to lead the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and was Jordan’s permanent representative to the United Nations. Before that, he was Jordan’s ambassador to the United States, chair of the Consultative Committee for the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), an advisor to the UN Secretary General on sexual exploitation and abuse in UN peacekeeping, a member of the World Bank’s Advisory Council for the World Development Report, and chair for negotiations with respect to crimes against humanity. He spoke with Sustainable Styles in New York several years ago and we are honored to share the conversation with you.


PP: Which of your many roles are you most proud of?


ZR: I can’t say that one is more important than another; they are all equally important. I want to stress, though, the very complicated negotiations for crimes against humanity (1998–1999). That was a complex issue, and arriving at results was very satisfying.


PP: You appeared on The Daily Show to promote Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril, by King Abdullah II of Jordan. In this book, he warns the reader that “unless real change came in the Middle East, unless we empowered our youth, and we created some sort of balance regarding opportunities for women, . . . the Arab world was going to be in trouble.” Can you expand on how to empower youth and how to create opportunities for women.


ZR: Two very good points. We have to make young Arabs, both men and women, believe that they have space to invest their energies and that these investments will yield some positive results. Over many centuries, traditional culture has shaped a patriarchal society, and we tend to respect those older than we are. Talented young engineers, doctors, and writers may not be given the break that they would find in less-traditional countries, where success is allowed at an early age. Many young people will leave the Middle East in search for opportunities elsewhere or, if they study abroad, will return to the Middle East for a brief period of time, grow frustrated, and leave. We need to do better. We can make them realize that they can participate and make their influence felt. Regarding opportunities for women, it does not go unnoticed that, for almost all our major exams, a large number or even the majority of students are always women. Yet the labor market is heavily tilted toward men. We need, like many other countries, to open a space for more women to participate – whether at the local, municipal, or national level and beyond. You can’t deny raw talent the opportunity be part of a productive society.


PP: You have said that “the world is changing and we need to change with it.” What advice do you have for our readers so that they can be a part of that change.


ZR: I made this point in relation to the UN human development report issued in the early part of the last decade. It was clear there that the Arab World had a deficit when it came to opportunities and knowledge. And that’s where we have to do more work to catch up. The pace in which technical knowledge is being acquired has increased, and that needs to be seen as a healthy thing. We need to maintain traditions but should not look on change with suspicion either. We need to understand how the world is changing and how we can adapt to it, while retaining the cultural rhythm in which change will be implemented. We have to look at what level we need to invest more, but I have to say that we already have great strength in mathematics and the sciences. You can see that in Jordanians coming to study in the United States. They are almost never here to study philosophy, sociology, psychology, law, or literature.

PP: It is my conviction that there is a parallel in lack of respect for the feminine principle and degradation of the environment. What is your position?


ZR: There is something in that. A number of studies argue that conflict, destruction, and violence are generally the monopoly of the male of the species, with the exception of the Amazon tribes of ancient Greece. Countries that show a greater respect for women and their role are generally more sensitive to nature and to our environment. In my experience with UNIFEM, most countries around the world need to do much more in terms of supporting women, giving them equal opportunity and bringing them into the very texture of our thinking. Many countries have proposed to do this, but when you study them more closely, they still need to secure the vote for women. Most of us have a long way to go. But I suspect you’re right: the more you move in the direction of protecting women, the more likely it is that you will also protect the environment.

PP: Describe a typical day in your life.

ZR: Difficult to say, because it changes every day. But take a day like this one: I came to the office an hour before everyone else. I was here preparing my statement for tomorrow, when the annual meeting we have on the International Convention on Disability will take place. I then met our delegation that arrived from Jordan two days ago and covered the program for the next week. I had discussions with our colleagues for the upcoming General Assembly, when summits will take up nuclear safety and terrorism, among other points. Then came my talk with you. At 2:00 I will meet the minister of Liberia, and at 3.00 I will chair a meeting with the other members of the “Liberian configuration” for the Peace Building Commission. We will have a meeting with the minister of planning and after that a reception, often followed by a dinner.

PP: We met several years ago at the Council of Foreign Relations, just before you lectured on the water problem that Jordan faces. What is the status of this issue now?

ZR: We are one of the most water-impoverished countries in the world. With every crisis in the Middle East, we have people coming to Jordan. Think of the crisis in Iraq and now more recent, Syria. We have a large number of refugees from Iraq in Jordan, and this population increase puts pressure on water usage as well. We are tapping into a large aquifer in the south, but of course this is an exhaustible supply, so we are seriously looking at having a major desalination plant there to help us meet the population’s water needs. It is a good thing that desalination has become something doable.

PP: What are the most important environmental pressure points in Jordan? Could you expand on the impacts there of climate change?

ZR: Desertification is a problem. Last year we had a record heat, wave like many other parts in the world. Weather patterns seemed to be affecting crops everywhere, and we were no exception. This summer was a bit cooler, but nevertheless any change in temperature will affect desertification. In the Middle East, we are very sensitive to these fluctuations. Another issue of great concern are the high food prices after a drought – and how the drought in China will affect our food prices. Take the harvest price of corn. When it fluctuates slightly, it has a huge impact on government budgets. In all of this, you cannot isolate one issue from another: every element affects the others. It’s not how we live today that we question. It is how governments will deal with the future. Will they subsidize prices, driving themselves deeper into debt? Desertification can lead to turmoil and conflict.

PP: Children are now diagnosed with “nature deficit disorder” – the human cost of alienation from nature. Did you have a mentor or a particular source of inspiration who enriched your relationship with nature during your childhood?

ZR: There was very little technology when I was growing up. That means no computer and no video games. I had an “outdoors” childhood, which doesn’t happen often now. We were out all the time, camping, organizing picnics, and discovering our own country. There was no mentor as such because my whole family was like that. It was the nature of the time. My family loves spending time in the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx, especially during the change of the seasons. Thanks to this kind of exposure, I realized that seasons change and that we are connected to nature. What do we celebrate these days? We celebrate the iPad and iPhone and what technology can bring to our lives, rather than leaders with grand ideas or the awakening of a new enlightenment. In changing times, we should not allow society to rob us of possibilities of understanding the great beauty in nature and that it would be a terrible loss to live your life without ever capturing that.

PP: You frequently speak at colleges as to inspire youth, and you have received the Johns Hopkins University Alumni Association’s Knowledge for the World Award. How can we inspire young adults to become stewards for a sustainable society?

ZR: Good question. There is pressure on young adults, once they complete their studies, to settle down with a job close to their hometown. Few take time off to visit friends in other countries, travel around the world, or volunteer for an environmental group, learning in the field before resuming a career. Most people look for something safe, in part because many students need to pay off their debt. But one must encourage them. When you are in your twenties, you are mobile and can use the opportunity to enjoy, explore, and understand how the world works and how nature works. You should not spend your entire life in your hometown and never travel anywhere. That is one of the most remarkable things about working with the UN. There, being international is the norm. I can only add that travel is very helpful personally. It gives you new ideas for beautifying the world and helps you develop insights into how to do things, even in your own neighborhood.