Diplomat and Human Rights Champion Delivers Ralston Prize Lecture at Stanford Law School

Diplomat and Human Rights Champion Delivers Ralston Prize Lecture at Stanford Law School 2
Ralston Award winner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, president and CEO of the International Peace Institute (IPI), former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the first President of the Assembly of State Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), received the Jackson H. Ralston Prize in International Law at Stanford Law School (SLS) on May 23. The prize recognizes original and distinguished contributions to the development of the role of law in international relations and the furtherance of international peace and justice.

Zeid’s record of international public service includes a distinguished career as a Jordanian diplomat, including serving as Jordan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and as Jordan’s ambassador to the United States. In 2014, he was named the sixth United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. He was the first Asian, Arab, or Muslim to hold that post. In 2002, he was elected the first President of the Assembly of State Parties of the ICC. 

During his visit to SLS, Zeid sat down with Assistant Professor Gulika Reddy, director of SLS’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, for a lunchtime conversation with SLS students about his career path, human rights challenges around the world, the role of the ICC and other topics relating to international human rights. Later that day, he delivered an address at SLS titled “Memory and Moral Consistency,” in which he argued that the failure of countries to reckon with their pasts—including the inability to reconcile contested interpretations of history—has impeded the advancement of human rights around the world. 

Watch the Ralston Prize Address

Diplomat and Human Rights Champion Delivers Ralston Prize Lecture at Stanford Law School 1
SLS’s Allen Weiner

“When looking at the global human rights picture today, it is almost impossible to disentangle the laws relating to rights from their historical contexts, or to ignore the failure of almost all countries to properly reckon with their pasts,” Zeid said during his speech, which members of the Ralston family attended. Allen Weiner, director of the Stanford Program in International and Comparative Law and director of the Stanford Humanitarian Program, introduced Zeid.

He began his address by telling the story of a man with a machine gun who put down a rebellion in Damascus in the 1920s. That man was his grandfather. 

“All of us, if we go back far enough in our family histories, will come across accomplishments big or small to admire, and most probably demons to recognize, however painful those are,” Zeid said.

It is the same when it comes to the dark histories of nations, he said.

Zeid called out countries and regions around the world for glossing over the violent and discriminatory chapters of their pasts, which he said contributes to tribalism, extreme nationalism, and double standards. “Western governments are especially accused by other states of being quick to condemn the dictators and the populists who are judged to be adversaries or enemies and then excuse or be silent over those considered to be friends,” he said. “And the critics are right of course, but not totally. From my long experience with these matters, all states practice double standards. All of them. I saw it in Syria and Yemen. The countries most vocal in their attacks on the conduct of the Syrian government were also some of the quietest when it came to the attacks inflicted on civilians in Yemen.”

Zeid also called out the United Nations, where he began his diplomatic career as peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia and where he held several senior roles in addition to High Commissioner for Human Rights. “The UN, in particular, has failed completely to seize on the critical importance of working on contested histories or is too terrified to do so,” he said. “It still believes peacebuilding, in the wake of violence and conflict, is best achieved by throwing cement at the problem: rebuild the roads, the bridges, train security officials, police and hope that reconciliation comes about by convening meetings.” 

As head of the nonprofit IPI, Zeid works on a variety of fronts to strengthen inclusive multilateralism around the world, including by helping governments, NGOs, and the private sector to cooperate in addressing existential issues such as climate change and pandemic preparedness. He is also the Perry House Professor of the Practice of Law and Human Rights at the University of Pennsylvania.

Diplomat and Human Rights Champion Delivers Ralston Prize Lecture at Stanford Law School
Members of the Ralston family attended the lecture.

Other Ralston Prize winners have included former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, JD ’49. The first recipient of the Ralston prize was Olaf J. Palme, former Prime Minister of Sweden, in 1977. 

About the Ralston Prize

The Jackson H. Ralston Prize in International Law recognizes original and distinguished contributions to the development of the role of law in international relations. The concept of law broadly includes all human efforts to enhance the establishment of international peace and justice. It broadly encompasses activity in arbitration, diplomacy, international organization, and other steps toward the peaceful settlement of disputes and conditions promoting world order. Each Ralston Prize winner gives a lecture. Over the years, the Ralston Prize Lectures have addressed a broad range of topics, including social justice and individual freedom, disarmament and development, transformation in South Africa, and the principles of negotiation.

The Ralston Prize is given in honor of Jackson H. Ralston, a lawyer born in 1857 who practiced international and labor law in Washington, D.C. for most of his career. After moving to Palo Alto in 1924, Ralston served as an international law lecturer at SLS. He died in 1945. His widow, Opal Ralston, established the Ralston Prize at Stanford in his memory in 1972 and, in 2007, the prize fund was enhanced with an additional gift from other Ralston family members. According to the terms of the prize trust, the prize is to be awarded only when specially merited and only to a person whose contributions toward the objectives of the award have attained the highest professional competence. 

Additional previous recipients were: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi; former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Robert S. Mueller; former U.S. Senator George J. Mitchell; former member of the South African Parliament and anti-apartheid campaigner Helen Suzman; former President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel; former Prime Minister of Canada Pierre Elliot Trudeau; former President of Costa Rica Oscar Arias Sanchez; and former ambassador to the U.S. and U.N. from Singapore Tommy T. B. Koh.

About Stanford Law School

Stanford Law School is one of the nation’s leading institutions for legal scholarship and education. Its alumni are among the most influential decision makers in law, politics, business, and high technology. Faculty members argue before the Supreme Court, testify before Congress, produce outstanding legal scholarship and empirical analysis, and contribute regularly to the nation’s press as legal and policy experts. Stanford Law School has established a model for legal education that provides rigorous interdisciplinary training, hands-on experience, global perspective and focus on public service, spearheading a movement for change.