Mona Rishmawi - IBA Annual Conference 2018

She’s currently Chief of the Rule of Law, Equality and Non-Discrimination Branch at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Speaking to IBA journalist Ruth Green, Rishmawi discusses the refugee crisis and the other major rule of law challenges around the world. A survivor of the 2003 Canal Hotel Bombing in Iraq, which targeted the UN Assistance Mission, killing over 20 people, she speaks about the importance of UN peacekeeping missions and how the experience strengthened her commitment to promoting the rule of law in hostile states.

Watch full filmed interview here

Ruth Green: Your role at the UN sounds very varied, could you tell us what it entails?

Mona Rishmawi: I sit at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). We are about 50 people, mostly lawyers but not all lawyers, who work on rule of law issues. We also work on discrimination. Our focus is on women’s rights, the rights of minorities and the rights of indigenous people, as well as anti-racism. We look at the anti-racism agenda, what the best practices are, whether we can help states or civil society. We analyse laws and legislation, give advice about the way forward from our research, and bring knowledge to our partners in the field or in different countries or to civil society. We host conferences and meetings and workshops and so on and we share what we know.

RG: Issues of equality, discrimination and diversity are all becoming more and more paramount in the current social climate. Is that something that has impacted your work?

Robert Mueller

Opponents of a white nationalist-led rally marking the one-year anniversary of the 2017 Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ protests hold a Black Lives Matter flag in downtown Washington, DC, US, 12 August 2018 © REUTERS/Leah Millis

MR: Human development or human progress never goes in a straight line, but in every area and every space you start to see clearly what is going on. Now we have the spotlight on groups that perhaps we did not have the spotlight on before; we focus a lot on the rights of people of African descent, for example. And of course that’s very important, particularly in the context where we have the Black Lives Matter movement, and we have elections everywhere where sometimes the racial issues are very much at the forefront. We are in a context of intense migration debate and immigration discussion. We look at the issue of colour and ethnicity and so on in this current context. Now, the intersectionality of discrimination is much clearer. So we look at African descent and ask the question, for example, ‘is this an African descent woman migrant coming from a particular background moving in a particular context?’ This intersectionality brings issues together all the time. How do we confront them? There is a sense of urgency with what we do.

RG: You mentioned minorities and migrants, obviously these are big issues now. Do you have any comments about how the UN has handled this?

MR: Our offices are global offices. We are looking here in Europe at a particular magnitude of an issue, but if you go to Bangladesh and see the number of people who just crossed from Rakhine State, it’s just incredible, it’s an amazing number. So is the level of violence that they have encountered. Right now, we are working in Latin America, if you look at the situation in Venezuela – the number of people who are crossing borders – you have to think that people are fleeing very, very desperate situations – what is our response as human beings? We talk a lot about management of these issues and how we can actually look at them. It’s just Europe sits at the centre; it’s in the middle of so many things. But I would say that a number of countries, which are much less wealthy and are much more fragile in terms of democracy, in terms of institutions and in terms of infrastructure, are doing a lot to accommodate other human beings; think of Lebanon and Jordan in terms of the Syrian refugee situation.

I think we have to put things in perspective: that we are in a global time where conflicts have brought misery for a lot of people. We are in a situation where we know we can do better and we have to do better.


“People are fleeing very, very desperate situations. What is our response as human beings?


The discussions in the UN, the Global Compact for Migration and so on, are moving things forward and that’s really important. The UN as a place where you can have a global discussion and global dialogue on issues is really essential, especially at times when a lot of people are fearful about their identity: ‘is the Other threatening me so much that I cannot live my life in the way I understand it?’ and ‘My children cannot live their lives in the way I lived my childhood’, this kind of stuff. I think that brings a really different perspective to that debate and I think it makes our role in the UN even more important, to facilitate these discussions, to make sure that we are bringing sense to it and putting the people at the centre of global policies.

RG: The issue of children’s rights, particularly in the context of refugees and immigration, has been thrust into the spotlight by what’s been happening in the United States, the only country that hasn’t ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. How does that play into your work?

MR: The most important thing to recognise is that we are not in a rule-free world. We understand what the frameworks are and how we have to move these frameworks forward. We have a responsibility to explain these frameworks to our constituencies, to our people as well, especially as lawyers, as leaders in our society.

If law is about anything, it is about how to achieve fairness between conflicting interests. These are very vulnerable people. As we know from our legal systems, we all have rules in our systems to protect the rights of the child. We have to make sure that whether you are a national or not, whether you are of a particular ethnicity, or a particular race, or a particular colour, children are children. They have the same level of emotions, the same level of understanding, they have the same vulnerabilities, they have the same needs and the same rights, clearly. We, as lawyers, have a big responsibility here.


“If law is about anything, it is about how to achieve fairness between conflicting interests


RG: What are the biggest rule of law challenges that you and your office are seeing at the moment?

MR: The challenges are coming from different sides and they are contradictory. On the one hand, we have very developed institutions throughout the world. The level of development differs from country to country, but in general we have never been in this place in our human history, where we have institutions throughout the world that can actually adjudicate and uphold rights, if they choose to do so. Every country has a parliament, every country has a judiciary, every country has an executive. Most countries have ratified human rights treaties. Every country has ratified at least two core treaties – this is no small thing. They have international obligations to their people, to each other, to the human rights community. So, in terms of the framework, we are in a good place. We are in a very good place.

Now, there are challenges. The challenges are coming through the framework from different sides. Some people take this framework for granted – we grew up feeling that these institutions exist and think nothing will shake that. If you don’t work on and make sure you nurture institutions and give them rules and ensure their ongoing relevance, you cannot take them for granted. We have seen, in a number of countries, judiciaries sinking to a lack of independence, impartiality and so on because their independence wasn’t stressed enough.

We have some parliaments that have historically played very important roles in upholding the rule of law and human rights, but we now find them adopting legislation that is not acceptable. We are in a situation where sometimes the executive is seen eating up the space of the two other branches of government. So there is a problem with the rule of law here.


“We have parliaments that have historically played very important roles in upholding the rule of law and human rights, but we now find them adopting legislation that is not acceptable


We are also in a different industrial phase. Technology is creating more challenges for people’s identity: who we are, how we connect with each other, how we talk to each other, how we converse. A lot of it is very positive because we exchange information, we exchange views, but the truth is being lost in the middle and hate speech and hate crime is all around. People are judged on the basis of stereotypes. Whether we have an adequate governing structure to look at this, and if we are in a rule of law vacuum regarding these issues, is not always clear. As a result, traditional, democratic institutions are vulnerable to all these issues.

We know about allegations of vote hacking – and the allegations worry us. In a human rights and rule of law framework, you want people to participate, because participation in public affairs is so important. But what is this participation? Is it about the quantity or quality of the participation? Do I fully understand what is going on around me so that I am truly informed about the various directions? So I can give my informed consent? So I agree on things when I fully understand what is going on? The truth is inbetween the various versions of it. So that worries us as an office a lot.

But, personally, I feel we have the frameworks to deal with these issues. We have to be resilient in applying these frameworks, on insisting to move forward, in believing in our institutions. And in believing that we are on the right path in thinking that it is good to have checks and balances in society. It cannot be one person’s rule. It’s impossible. There is no person in the world who hasn’t made mistakes. Two people, three people, three institutions, four institutions are always better than one. There is no doubt that accumulating power in the hands of a few is never a good idea.

I think we are on the right track. We just have to be resilient. We have to deal with the challenges; we have to understand them, analyse them and move forward.


“It is good to have checks and balances in society. It cannot be one person’s rule. There is no person in the world who hasn’t made mistakes


RG: I’m aware that you were unfortunately involved in the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad, Iraq, and you luckily survived what must have been a very traumatic experience. I wonder how that altered or modified the UN’s general thinking around peacekeeping in these kinds of areas, where the rule of law doesn’t apply.

MR: I’ll start from a personal viewpoint. This was a very tragic experience.

I saw my boss, immediate friends… When you are on mission, you are with each other for around 16 hours a day. You know each other so well. To have 21 people taken away from you in a split second is very, very cruel. But, I feel lucky that I survived it, that my husband was also there and we both survived it. I also feel lucky for my family that day. I felt very guilty. Why did we put our two mothers – mine and my husband’s – in this situation by going to Iraq?

But, I have to say, when I think back to this experience, a few things become more important. While I understand how important it is to uphold the rights of victims of terrorism, I feel it’s also so important to understand why this happened and stop it from happening.


“To me this is not theory. I was a victim of a crime, a very brutal crime, and I didn’t want that man to be executed


It’s also important to not have a vindictive approach. To me, one of the saddest moments after the event was when the only person that we know who was implicated in that attack was executed. I really felt extremely sad because executing him didn’t help me at all. What did it give me? It didn’t return anyone I knew. It didn’t give me satisfaction. I was always hoping that one day I’d have an encounter with him, I’d go back to Iraq, meet him in prison and say, ‘What do you know about me? Why did you attack me?’ I wanted that part of the truth to come out.

To me this is not theory. I was also a victim of a crime, a very brutal crime, and I didn’t want that man to be executed, so I discovered something about myself in addition to my principles and working for human rights.


Demonstrators clash with riot security forces while rallying against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas, Venezuela, 28 July 2017 © REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins


I had not a single hesitation to say, ‘Please, High Commissioner, intervene to save his life.’ Even though that man wanted to take the life of my amour. So to me that was a very important lesson about who one is. I found myself really believing in the legal system. I really thought ‘OK, he did a terrible crime, a terrible and despicable crime’, but I just wanted justice and to me justice was not revenge. Therefore I think, in all these situations, even when the rule of law is collapsing, what we want is a measure of justice. That’s basically what people often talk about in theory, but when you live it, you actually understand what they mean because that to me would have been a much bigger relief than any revenge that occured.

Iraq had the rule of law for centuries, long before other people, it just happened to live through a very unfortunate period of its history where it was ruled by a dictatorship. It’s not the fault of the Iraqi people, it’s not the fault of its lawyers. We should have done a lot more to help them come out of it. And it’s certainly not their fault that they ended up with the kind of terrorists they’re surrounded with. We have to understand what actually happened and why. What was the trigger and how can we stop it?

I continue to believe that the only real way forward is for people to have a sense of justice, that justice was done and it was not about cruelty or violence. It’s about what helps you to go forward.