From left to right: Omar Zniber, President of the HRC, Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Volker Turk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, during the opening of the 55th session of the Human Rights Council © UN archives

Balancing ambition and realism
Morocco’s first President of the Human Rights Council, Ambassador Omar Zniber, reveals how he intends to lead the Council over the next year
1 Apr 2024

It is the kind of February sky that you would expect in Geneva – a canopy of coy cotton hanging slightly overhead, sprinkled with morning chirrups as the good old Grand-Saconnex neighborhood timidly awakens.

We are simultaneously a five-minute drive from the venerable Human Rights Council, a few steps away from the office of its newly elected president, and thousands of miles from multiple zones of conflict, complete with aerial bombardment, death, desolation, and of course, gross human rights violations.

Earlier this year, on 10 January 2024, there were celebrations at the office of Ambassador Omar Zniber, the Permanent Representative of Morocco to the United Nations Office at Geneva. On post since 2018, Mr Zniber had just been elected President of the Human Rights Council (HRC), a first for the Kingdom of Morocco.

A graduate of international relations from the prestigious Mohammed V University in Rabat in the late 1970s and holder of a PhD in international public law – with a thesis on African borders – from Pantheon Sorbonne University in Paris in 1986, Mr Zniber is the quintessential career diplomat.

He is well versed in the UN machinery, having been the lead on UN and international organizations’ affairs in the Moroccan Foreign Ministry between 1996 and 2003, before assuming various ambassadorial roles in Europe, including in Germany and Austria, where he also covered Slovenia and Slovakia.

The diplomatic stars had aligned for this son of Salé – the 11th century twin city of the capital Rabat – sitting right at the mouth of the Bouregrag River as it dives into the Atlantic. Salé is known for its Moorish cultural roots, for its saints and marabouts, for its folktales as an ancient hub for sea pirates, and more recently for hosting a rocket-shaped tower said to be the second tallest in Africa (at 250m), which overlooks a sumptuous postmodern theatre house designed by the late Zaha Hadid. 

Born in 1956, the year of Morocco’s independence from France, Mr Zniber grew up into a well-known and politically active family. The name of his father, Tahar, appears on the list of signatories to the Manifesto of Independence, a symbolic document drafted by Moroccan nationalists on 11 January 1944, claiming the end of the French Protectorate. His uncle, Mohamed, 

was a historian, writer, and political activist; and his grandfather, Abu Bakr, was a respected jurist and author. According to one account, in February 1944, all three were held in prison for three months by the French occupation for supporting grassroots protests.

Fast-forward 80 years, Mr Zniber is delivering his acceptance speech in Geneva. Now, wearing the heavy hat of the presidency, he must set priorities for this 18th Cycle of the HRC, in a global geopolitical landscape fraught with tension and uncertainty amid ongoing armed conflicts in Europe and the Middle East.

Mr Zniber says over a cup of Moroccan mint tea at his office, “I’m clearly aware of the mandate of the President… of course, these troubles in the world are clearly impacting the work of the Human Rights Council. My responsibility, together with the Bureau and all partners and stakeholders within the Council, is to limit the negative impacts.” 

One way of achieving this is through “preventive diplomacy,” Mr Zniber suggests, “and promoting and deepening dialogue.”

While the gravity of the humanitarian situations resulting from the conflicts in Ukraine and Palestine warrants the Council’s urgent attention and continuous monitoring, it is the HRC’s responsibility to also remain attentive to all regions of the world and, as such, must “always work in a balanced way,” Mr Zniber notes. “Let’s look at Africa: in the DRC, in Sudan. Let’s also look at Yemen and various situations … not to forget that having inclusivity in our behavior is of utmost importance.” 

Mr Zniber recognises that the diplomatic tradition he hails from – Morocco’s open-doors, extended-hand, let’s-talk-it-out diplomacy – can help advance the work of the HRC and possibly achieve breakthroughs. But he maintains a sense of cautious realism, verging on a form of possibilism, stemming from a keen awareness that current global challenges are not only multi-layered and multi-dimensional but also polymorphic and asymmetrical.

Mr Zniber expresses his priority to remain impartial as expected from his shift in role from Ambassador to President of the HRC: “As far as Moroccan diplomacy is concerned, now I have the hat of the President of the Council, so I’m not voicing [stances] on behalf of Moroccan diplomacy, but I am Moroccan and I have been educated in this way: I mean, behaving responsibly and trying not to be selective.”

“We have major issues confronting us,” he cautions, referring to current humanitarian tragedies in several hotspots, “but let’s not forget the environmental issues, the climate change, the poverty, the health security, the food security – these are also strongly linked to our duties in terms of promoting human rights. We live in a world where you have approximately a billion people who are not eating sufficiently – which is a human right. Likewise, we live in a world where you have over three billion people who never accessed medical imaging … and the same for environmental security.”

In a nutshell, the HRC under Mr Zniber’s one-year presidency in 2024 will try to pull more willpower towards the following areas: defusing tensions within the Council’s membership; taking stock of the Council’s performance and processes with a view to proposing possible streamlining reforms; improving food, health, and climate security rights; and bridging the digital divide with an eye out on disruptions in the Artificial Intelligence arena.

A tall order, perhaps, but those were the same priorities he restated at a press conference the day following our interview on 20 February.

Before we say goodbye, I ask Mr Zniber if he could capture Morocco for the international community in a slogan of under 10 words. He responds: “Morocco has a deep soul.” 

* Achraf El Bahi is an Arabic Interpreter at UNOG.
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