AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now perspective from someone who has just exited the world stage - Prince Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein was the U.N. high commissioner for human rights until earlier this month when he announced his resignation. He said the geopolitical climate had made it challenging to do the job with independence and integrity. I first asked him what he thought about the Trump administration's new cap on refugees.
ZEID RA'AD AL-HUSSEIN: Well, it's deeply regrettable of course because the assumption given is that the refugees themselves are migrants, so those seeking political asylum are the problem. And if there are differences between states, between countries, whether it be on trade or strategic issues or greater importance, then states have to really come to grips with the source of the problems. And often it's not the most vulnerable. It's not the migrants. It's not those who are seeking a better life. To me, it seems almost cowardly that governments should seek to sidestep that.
CORNISH: How do you look at this in the context of the rise of nationalism and populism?
AL-HUSSEIN: Well, you're creating a hypothetical. You're saying basically that we have to put up walls, and we have to create barriers because these people threaten our way of life. They threaten it when they're already inside the country. They're often accused of being, you know, serial criminals almost, so we cannot allow more in. This is a mean-spirited approach to the handling of any country's particular problems.
That you have crime, yes, it means you need to invest more in judges and more in the courts and police. It doesn't mean that you somehow create a different standard for immigrant communities as you would have - as you would approach other communities. I mean, the sad thing about ethno-nationalisms, chauvinistic nationalisms is that once you reach a certain pitch, you can't easily dismantle it.
CORNISH: I want to ask you a little bit more about some of the policies out of the U.S. these days. The Trump administration has not only pulled out of the Human Rights Council, but it also says it plans to defund this office, this office you formally ran. What difference is that going to make not having U.S. aid or support?
AL-HUSSEIN: Well, you know, it's not obviously good, but it wouldn't be fatal to the operations of the office. Ultimately we always think engagement is better. It's harder. Of course you have to create coalitions. You have to create partnerships and - to change policy.
The idea of either withdrawing or, you know, placing humanity on the poker table and throwing dice and calling your adversary's bluff is dangerous. And in the past, this has led to cataclysmic events. Yes, certain institutions need to be reformed through good diplomatic practice of a - in a point of view and through persuasive means so that things can change.
CORNISH: Earlier this year on the U.N. Security Council, they voted down your attempts to speak about Syria. And I wonder if - what your faith is in international organizations to solve major crises - right? - like Syria, like Yemen.
AL-HUSSEIN: You know, I have so much respect for the U.N. in the field, that humanitarian aid workers, the human rights officials. And what frustrates me a great deal is the intergovernmental discussions where the states themselves are often unable to arrive at a conclusion, where the discussions are often rather thoughtless, banal and sometimes too formulaic. And I think the world's people deserve better, and they deserve a political class around the world that is really solving the problems of the planet.
CORNISH: Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein stepped down as U.N. high commissioner for human rights earlier this month. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
AL-HUSSEIN: Thank you so much. Thank you.
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