"It seemed to be so foolish," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein told CNN's Elise Labott during a Capitol Hill roundtable discussion for the UN Foundation. "Or it seemed to be driven by a sense of purpose."
"And why take us to a place where what can accrue from this is immense violence?" he asked. "We've been there before."
Al Hussein also condemned nationalism and populism more broadly, saying the international human rights framework, put in place after World War II and the Holocaust, "is under immense stress at the moment" from authoritarian leaders and terrorist groups, but also populist politicians in the west. He derided an increasingly popular school of thought in the western world that suggests human rights efforts have been ineffective and should therefore be tossed aside.
The commissioner -- a former Jordanian ambassador to the United States and United Nations, who has been vocal in calling out abuses in the Middle East as well as other regions of the world -- pointed out tens of millions of people died in two world wars and the Holocaust before the international community came together to develop the Human Rights Declaration, and suggested the world is at risk of returning to the nation-centric dynamic of the early 20th century that allowed that violence to happen.
"This is now a bare-knuckled fight for rights," he said. "This is not an exchange of pleasantries."
"If people don't know what their rights are and are not defending the rights of others, it can all slip away all too quickly," he added, "and we see that in many parts of the world."
Al Hussein also said he sees a "mean-spiritedness" in some of the restrictive border control and refugee admissions policies in western countries like the United States.
"Do we want a world where there's a meanness?" he asked. "A mean-spiritedness?
In his remarks, Al Hussein also criticized a host of world leaders for failing to do more to address the crisis in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state, where more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have been chased from their homes.
In September, Al Hussein said the conflict was a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing." It's a characterization that was ultimately endorsed
by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said last month that the violence in Rakhine, "meets all the criteria of ethnic cleansing" and "has a number of characteristics of crimes against humanity."
On Thursday, he reiterated his disappointment in civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi's tepid and untimely response to the violence, but also singled out world leaders, including Pope Francis
, for their failure to identify Rohingya Muslims as the specific targets of the violence.
"I believe his holiness the Pope is a courageous man, he's a courageous leader, and he's proven himself to be that," he said. "But I was disappointed that he didn't use the word Rohingya (in his remarks in Myanmar).'"
He said he worried the crisis could spiral further out of control and could draw extremists if not addressed sharply and quickly by the international community, and said ultimately a court will need to decide whether the violence was pre-planned, which could qualify the attacks as genocide.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein was speaking at a roundtable for the UN Foundation.