Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, will address the Human Rights Council at the opening meeting of it 35th session, on June 6. She has said she intends to put the 47 members of the Council “on notice” about the need for reform. Some of Haley’s colleagues, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have explicitly threatened that if such reforms to the Council are not forthcoming, the US, which began a three-year term on Jan. 1, 2017, could withdraw.
While Haley and her colleagues are correct in their diagnoses of the Council’s shortcomings, a US withdrawal would do nothing to cure them. More, rather than less, US leadership will be required to improve the Council’s performance and credibility to ensure that it upholds, rather than undermines, human-rights priorities that are in America’s and the world’s interest to maintain.
A review of what the US has accomplished so far makes the case for its leadership role clear. It also suggests where further American efforts could improve the Council’s effectiveness and legitimacy.
US government officials have been working to address the Council’s shortcomings since 2009, when the US first decided to pursue a membership. Today, the rights records of the members of the Human Rights Council generally outperform the average for countries in their regional groups, with more countries ranked “free” by the Freedom House organization, which measures civil and political rights worldwide, and fewer “not free” countries than might be expected for Council members from all regions of the globe, except for Latin America.
None of the world’s nine worst human-rights offenders, as ranked by Freedom House through a scoring measure (Syria, Eritrea, North Korea, Uzbekistan, South Sudan, Turkmenistan, Somalia, Sudan and Equatorial Guinea), has ever been elected to the Council. This is no small achievement, as Syria, Eritrea and Somalia obtained membership on the Human Rights Council’s predecessor institution, the UN Commission on Human Rights.
While Belarus, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran and Zimbabwe were also members of the former Commission, they have not been elected to the Human Rights Council; although several have tried, they were blocked.
Of course, US efforts did not prevent countries — such as Venezuela and Cuba — from obtaining membership on the Council, where they, like several other states with poor rights records, some of whose candidacies were not opposed by the US, have sought to shield themselves and their allies from scrutiny.
Yet even with the Council’s compromised membership, the US has made a significant impact on the Council’s record of taking to task despots and rights-abusing governments. A key accomplishment is an increase in the number of country-specific human rights monitors (“Special Procedures”) designated by the Council, from eight in 2009 to 13 in 2017.
The US has also led efforts at the Council calling for independent examinations of human-rights violations perpetrated by egregious violator countries and terrorist groups, such as Boko Haram and the so-called Islamic State (Daesh).
Haley has seen this improved performance of the Council, when in March 2017, with strong American support, it adopted stand-alone resolutions on Syria, North Korea, Iran, Myanmar (Burma), South Sudan and Libya.
Haley has also sharply criticized the Council’s treatment of Israel. Indeed, notwithstanding years of US efforts to promote change, the Council continues to devote an exceedingly disproportionate amount of its attention to condemning Israel’s human-rights record. No country has ever been subjected to more resolutions than Israel in any single year since the Council began, in 2006. No other country is the focus of a stand-alone item on the Council’s agenda.
Yet the degree of the Council’s bias against Israel has lessened over time: from 2006 to 2008, when the US was not a member, Israel was condemned in more than half (17 of 33) of all the country-specific resolutions adopted.
As a result of US efforts to increase the number of other countries that the Council scrutinizes, the five resolutions it passed on Israel in 2016 represented 19 percent of the country-specific resolutions it adopted during the year. The US and its allies have also repeatedly signaled that it is inappropriate for the Council to maintain a stand-alone agenda item on Israel.
Moreover, US leadership at the Council has ensured that it reaffirms important universal human-rights principles, among them freedom of assembly and association, freedom of opinion and expression and freedom of religion or belief.
American leadership has also mobilized the Council to rebuff attacks on human-rights norms launched by its worst members. During the period of US membership, the Council ended a longstanding series of resolutions titled “defamation of religions,” which justified states’ use of anti-blasphemy laws; rejected challenges to resolutions calling for the protection of human-rights defenders; and defeated attempts to carve out exceptions to a resolution condemning terrorism.
The US has played a critical role in fighting against these and other efforts to undermine essential human-rights protections.
Indeed, US engagement with the Human Rights Council has been a game-changer for the pre-eminent intergovernmental body tasked with advancing human rights. At the same time, further reforms to address the Council’s enduring flaws are both necessary and achievable. There is much more that the US could do to tackle the problem of the Council’s membership, both in Geneva and at the UN General Assembly, where votes on candidacies take place.
As Haley has noted, a good place to start is taking steps to ensure that regional groups stop the practice of running clean slates of countries seeking election to the Council and instead hold competitive elections. Haley could and should also redouble US efforts to encourage rights-respecting countries to run for seats on the Council. She might start with the 10 members of the Asia-Pacific Group and 13 members of the Latin American and Caribbean States Group that are ranked “free” but have never served on the Council.
Haley should also consider whether to try to invoke a powerful tool at the General Assembly’s disposal: suspending the membership of a Council member, which has happened once, in the case of Libya.
Conversely, America’s efforts to improve the Council’s membership would be greatly diminished if it were to renounce its own seat. Departure would not correct the Council’s structural bias against Israel, nor minimize the damage that other members could successfully inflict on human-rights standards in its absence. Victims of human-rights violations who look to the Council for recognition and support would lose the essential boost they have received from the active US presence.
As she reflects on the future of the US relationship with the Human Rights Council, Haley should consider US membership as an opportunity to signal to the world that America views the promotion of human rights and the rule of law as an enduring national priority. At the same time, membership on the Council offers the US a chance to make the body a more effective and credible promoter of human rights worldwide.