The 2018 winter session of the United Nations Human Rights Council was marked more by what didn’t happen than what did. There was still no official announcement in Geneva from the Trump administration about whether the United States would leave the Council or even seek re-election in 2019, when its current term expires.
There was also no definitive outcome of plans to build a coalition among like-minded countries on the 47-member Council about how to change some of its rules and procedures through compromises that could reduce criticism of the body.
In June 2017, when Ambassador Nikki Haley came to Geneva, where the Council is based, she laid down in a speech at the Graduate Institute, a university-level institution, an ultimatum that unless the Council abolished its system of electing members and stopped singling out Israel for condemnation, the US would go “outside” to protect human rights.
The Netherlands stepped in to find a compromise.
The Dutch initiative, at first informal, took on a more formal shape by September with a meeting in New York led by Bert Koenders, the Dutch foreign minister at the time; Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary; and Haley. Thirty-seven other nations joined in the meeting.
The aim of the conference, the three leaders said in a statement, was to continue a productive dialogue, “making clear their commitment to achieving progress on meaningful reforms to strengthen the Human Rights Council.”
The Netherlands, with numerous international human-rights leaders, stress that the focus of this effort should stay on Geneva, where the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, is also based. To take the issue of reforming the Human Rights Council back to the UN General Assembly, where the Council was created in 2006, could open years of fruitless, contentious debate even though many nations accept that reforms are needed.
“The Netherlands has always been of the opinion that any process of improving the work of the HRC should be led from Geneva, and during the September meeting we (re)committed to leading that process in Geneva,” a Dutch official said in an email on March 30. “To this end we set up consultations with delegations in Geneva that culminated in a conference in December where improvements can be made to the workings of the council.” A report from that meeting emerged in early 2018.
As months have passed, some initiatives have been proposed but, in true UN tradition, there was no concrete follow-up by governments. “None of these initiatives have, as of yet, led to significant changes,” the Dutch official said. “Although disappointing, we never expected that it would be easy to get quick fixes. However we are committed to the process and will continue to look, in a transparent and constructive manner, at ways to improve the functioning of the council.”
The atmosphere surrounding UN member nations’ efforts to come to terms with Trump’s hostility, and their attitude toward the US generally, deteriorated sharply when President Trump suddenly announced in December that he was recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would be moving the American embassy there.
This abrupt move contravenes all international agreements on the future of Jerusalem, a city holy to Christians and Muslims as well as to Jews, as it is also sought as a political capital by Palestinians. Resolutions in both the Security Council and the General Assembly brought virtually unanimous condemnation of the US and demanded that Trump rescind his decision. Haley angrily rejected these votes.
The familiar America threats continue. Haley, who was not in Geneva in March this year, where the US delegation to the recent Council session was led by a senior diplomat from the State Department, said in a statement on March 23 that the intractable issue was still Israel.
“Today, the UN Human Rights Council adopted five resolutions condemning Israel,” she said after the session closed. “At the same time, the Council adopted only one resolution each against North Korea, Iran and Syria. . . . Our patience is not unlimited. Today’s actions make clear that the organization lacks the credibility needed to be a true advocate for human rights.”
Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, with whom Haley is in lockstep, went further. “There will be significant consequences,” he said.
At the State Department, the tone was much more measured, comprehensive and positive, listing what the US delegation, led by an acting assistant secretary of state, Molly McPhee, had accomplished in Geneva.
The US, the State Department said, had not only introduced a successful resolution on South Sudan, where a civil war of unending brutality has torn apart the world’s newest nation. The US had also joined with other nations in addressing rights situations in China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, the Congo, Egypt, Turkey, Burundi, Azerbaijan, the Maldives, Vietnam and Bahrain.
On China, the State Department said, the US voted in Geneva against Chinese-inspired resolutions that would weaken the language of agreement on internationally accepted human rights. (Read: good things get done by the US in the Council.) The Chinese were “demanding that governments be ‘respected’ (i.e. not have their human rights records criticized),” the State Department said, adding that “feel good” language is “intended to benefit autocratic states at the expense of individuals.”
The US also played what its diplomats called a “key role” in renewing the appointment of a human-rights monitor for Iran, a mandate formerly held by Asma Jahangir, the internationally respected Pakistani human-rights lawyer who died on Feb. 11.
On Israel, the American delegation noted, Australia voted with the US against all five anti-Israeli resolutions, while “many other” partners changed votes to either no or to abstain. “This session demonstrated the largest shift in votes toward more abstentions and no votes on Israeli-related resolutions since the creation of the HRC,” the State Department said.
On March 6, a group of leading human-rights organizations — led by Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights in New York, with the leaders of Human Rights First, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and Freedom Now, as well as Peter Yeo, president of the Better World Campaign — wrote a letter to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was dismissed about two weeks later.
In part, he was punished because of his preference for diplomacy over military threats. The letter called on him to “redouble US engagement with the UNHRC,” and to appoint an American ambassador in Geneva to work more actively with the Council.
What has been accomplished by the US at the Council in recent years, incremental but real, now appears in jeopardy as John Bolton takes over as Trump’s national security adviser. Bolton has consistently disparaged the UN. From August 2005 to December 2006, as ambassador to the UN on a part-time “recess” appointment because he was unable to win Senate confirmation, he opposed the creation of the Human Rights Council to succeed the discredited Human Rights Commission.
Bolton stalled work on the new body by demanding significant changes in the resolution creating it, especially in procedures for electing Council members. When his proposals were rejected, he persuaded President George W. Bush to stay out of the new organization. In a statement in the General Assembly on March 15, 2006, Bolton said: “Absent stronger mechanisms for maintaining credible membership, the United States could not join consensus on this resolution.”
In 2009, in one of his early decisions after being sworn in as president, Barack Obama changed that policy, and the US was elected to its first term as a Council member that year.
Haley has revived — or kept alive — similar judgments made by Bolton. She has demanded that the method of choosing Council members be restructured from a system of locked-in candidates chosen by regional groups to an open competition for seats. Most vociferously, she is demanding the removal of the Council’s agenda Item 7, which perennially focuses on Israel and Israel alone for global criticism.
In June 2017, Haley made these demands as preconditions for continued American membership, but neither she nor Trump has acted on her threats. Human-rights advocates say that making reform of the Council all about one country may not be the way to build consensus on broader changes and that it doesn’t help Haley’s case.
Haley will now be in the shadow of a new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, formerly head of the Central Intelligence Agency, and, of course, John Bolton, an even tougher critic of the UN in the White House. She may have missed an opportunity for diplomacy that is unlikely to recur any time soon.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.