In a much-anticipated series of speeches in Geneva on June 6, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, would not say whether a decision had been made by the Trump administration about US membership in the UN Human Rights Council. But she warned that if the Council, widely criticized by conservative politicians, did not “reform” to meet American demands, the US could go “outside” to protect human rights.
Haley, a former Republican governor of South Carolina who assumed her position — her first diplomatic job — in January, had tried to promote the shifting human-rights issues to the Security Council in April. That idea was met with opposition (or lack of interest) and was not actively pursued.
Haley raised the issue again early in the day on June 6 in brief remarks in the Human Rights Council — much shorter than expected — and continued that theme later in the day in an address to the Graduate Institute in Geneva. The institute, founded in 1927, is a premier center of research and graduate studies in global affairs.
“If the Human Rights Council is going to be an organization we entrust to protect and promote human rights, it must change,” she said. “If it fails to change, then we must pursue the advancement of human rights outside of the Council. America does not seek to leave the Human Rights Council. We seek to re-establish the Council’s legitimacy.”
Haley laid down two markers in her address at the Graduate Institute to determine whether the US would find it worthwhile to remain a Council member. Neither of these requirements are new American demands or new suggestions for reform, which cannot, in any case, be met easily. The Council is an independent body of 47 nations elected from regions around the world and is not appointed or otherwise controlled by the UN secretary-general or the Security Council. (The US term on the Council expires in 2019.)
Significant changes in the Council’s procedures would have to be made there or in the General Assembly, to which all 193 nations belong, each with one vote and no veto powers. The Council was formally created by the Assembly and began to function in 2006 to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission.
“First,” Haley said, “the UN must act to keep the worst human rights abusers from obtaining seats on the Council. . . . As it stands, elections for membership to the Council are over before the voting even begins. No competition means no scrutiny of candidates’ human rights records. We must change the elections so countries are forced to make the case for membership based on their records, not on their promises.”
“Selection of members must occur out in the open for all to see,” she added. “The secret ballot must be replaced with open voting.”
Her second demand was that a Council agenda provision — known universally as Item 7 — which perennially singles out Israel for condemnation, “must be removed.” That demand has garnered wide bipartisan support in the US, and American diplomats have been successful in recent years in reducing the number of obsessive resolutions on this issue.
Haley’s language nevertheless was harsh: “Since its creation, the Council has passed more than 70 resolutions targeting Israel. It has passed just seven on Iran. This relentless, pathological campaign against a country that actually has a strong human rights record makes a mockery not of Israel, but of the Council itself.”
Haley was not alone in her criticisms on the opening day of the periodic Human Rights Council session. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, under whose purview the Council falls, devoted much of his major address to the shameful litany of nations who refuse to allow visits from human-rights reporters and investigators in his office. Some of the experts, often voluntary holders of various mandates, are physically abused when they enter certain countries to survey situations.
He named seven current members of the Council or candidates for future membership that have been uncooperative and violating their pledge to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights”: Burundi, Egypt, Indonesia, Nepal, Nigeria, the Philippines and Venezuela.
Between her brief remarks in the Council and her hourlong session at the privately funded Graduate Institute, Haley organized a side event on Venezuela, a country that she said had not been given adequate attention by the Council. Venezuela, now in economic collapse and turmoil rife with human-rights violations by the government of Nicolás Maduro, was elected to the Council by the Latin American and Caribbean bloc.
Haley’s focus on Venezuela may be inspired by a bipartisan letter from some Congressional members urging the Trump administration to bring Venezuela’s humanitarian situation to the UN Security Council. Latin American diplomats at the UN balked at Haley’s move to get the Security Council to discuss Venezuela, saying regional organizations were dealing with it.
“Here, at the world’s pre-eminent human rights organization, Venezuela is a member in good standing,” Haley said in her side event at the UN’s Geneva headquarters. “And it uses that membership to block any meaningful discussion of its human rights violations. The Human Rights Council has no excuse.”
Throughout her day in Geneva, Haley clung to the mantra that the US was the model and arbiter of human rights, at one point eliciting gasps from scholars at the Graduate Institute. In a question-and-answer session after her formal presentation, she evaded virtually every substantive question about US policies or intentions, veering into topics about which she hadn’t been asked.
She dodged challenges to a newly restrictive American refugee policy and interjected phrases about future US involvement with qualifiers like “Should we stay . . . ” or “If we stay . . . “
She did not acknowledge or was not aware that the decision to withdraw from the Council could be made not by the executive branch of the US government, but by the critics of the UN in US Congress, where budget-cutters will try to save money. All the president would need to do is sign such action into law. She did not address a question about what Trump may be thinking.
Finally, a questioner demanded, Will the US withdraw? “Yes or no?”
Her answer put a lid on the issue: “I’m not going to commit today.”