It’s a poor workman who blames his tools, a popular French proverb cautions. But that’s just what Ambassador Nikki Haley has been doing in trying to justify Washington’s exit from the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council.
Haley has looked long and hard in her scramble to identify the villains responsible for Washington’s exit. As she would have it, almost everyone in the world but her should be sharing the guilt. And there are some good reasons human-rights fans might want to jump ship from the 47-nation Council. But for Washington, the divorce was just a cover story for Trump administration business as usual.
Haley had proposed a package of reforms as the price for the United States to remain a member and portrayed it as her pet project. The reforms never happened, but you can’t blame her leadership alone for its failure. That falls on the entire clan of daffy diplomats assembled by her narcissistic boss, Donald Trump, who has little understanding of, and even less interest in, human rights, let alone global peace and security.
Haley, in announcing on June 19 that Washington was calling it quits after a year of pushing for reform, sought to make the case that her team alone wanted an effective UN human-rights body but had been thwarted at every turn by the enemies of change. For a start, it was the fault of the Council itself, she explained, “an organization that is not worthy of its name.”
She also pointed a finger at the countries that joined the Council so they could use their membership to hide their own abusive practices. Then, she charged, there were those who defended the status quo so they could continue to use the Council as a forum to pick on Israel, a country that can do no wrong in Trump’s eyes.
Haley was equally contemptuous of the traditional American allies that call themselves human-rights champions but refused to go along with her changes. Finally, there was the community of international rights activists — groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International — that are dedicated to defending the helpless.
Haley accused the activists of working to “block negotiations and thwart reform.” They should have been out there standing firmly behind her, lobbying for her ideas, she declared in a letter sent to 18 different rights groups.
In putting forward her lengthy list of wrongdoers, she suggested no overarching motive for their sins. Nor did she ever question her own goals, her strategy or her time frame. Some might wonder whether releasing a fixed set of reforms, focusing solely on a single country’s wishes and arbitrarily limiting the campaign to a single year may not have been the best way to build a broad international consensus. Haley seemed far more interested in making her own boss look righteous than in winning.
But wait. Isn’t there a pattern here?
After taking office in January 2017, Trump fully curtailed American participation in Unesco (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the UN Population Fund and the UN global compact on migration — all before pulling out of the Human Rights Council. He slashed US funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (Unrwa) and is threatening additional cuts. He has pushed steadily for unilateral cuts in the overall UN budget and in the separate budget for peacekeeping.
Trump has pulled Washington out of the landmark Paris climate accord, joining just Syria and Nicaragua, and the Iran nuclear pact, despite its continued support by Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union. Not only did Trump drop out of the Iran agreement but he is now working overtime to undermine the other signatories’ ability to honor the deal on their own.
He regularly campaigns against NATO, the Group of 7 and the European Union, mostly for failing to knuckle under his America First philosophy, and he has harshly insulted the leaders of Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Iran and Mexico, among others, typically accusing them of being soft on immigrants and the violent crimes he erroneously accuses them of committing.
In December, he dumped nearly seven decades of international consensus in recognizing Jerusalem as the eternal and undivided capital of Israel. Within days, when the Security Council and then the General Assembly decided to take up resolutions disapproving of the new US stand on Jerusalem, Haley warned that she would be “taking names” of those who failed to support the US and threatened UN budget cuts in retaliation. When the resolution, which she vetoed in the Security Council and was passed in the Assembly 128-9, Haley threw a party to thank the no votes and abstentions.
Does this sound like a savvy administration intent on wooing votes in a contest over how best to protect human rights? The better question is, could Haley possibly have been surprised when her reform campaign won so little support among both UN members and human-rights activists? To so many people in the world at this point, Trump is poison.
It must be stressed here that the Human Rights Council is far from perfect. It counts some of the world’s worst rights abusers among its members; Haley singled out China, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt and Venezuela as notorious abusers using their membership to evade international scrutiny. (Saudi Arabia, which Trump counts on to antagonize Iran despite its dismal rights record, was omitted from her list, as were the Philippines and the United Arab Emirates.)
Fortunately for the citizens of those countries that Haley called out, the Council is not the sole international forum where rights complaints can be aired. There are the Security Council, the General Assembly and other UN agencies with overlapping authority. And there are always unilateral and bilateral channels.
So when the UN high commissioner for human rights issued a statement in June criticizing Trump’s separation of immigrant children from their parents, Haley responded, “Neither the United Nations nor anyone else will dictate how the United States upholds its borders.” And when UN special rapporteur on poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, said in May that of America’s 325 million people, “[a]bout 40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty,” she said it was “patently ridiculous for the UN to examine poverty in America” and dismissed the figures as “politically motivated.”
She shields America’s abuses by hiding behind its sovereignty, just like Cuba and Venezuela. It does throw into question how vigorously Washington will be wielding the available tools to protect and promote human rights now and in the future.
Haley, of course, insists that pulling out of the UN council will not affect Washington’s commitment to people’s rights. But Haley’s foreign policy playbook reflects a duality that is fundamental to the Trump administration. First comes the overarching desire to bludgeon every member of every multinational forum into unquestioningly putting America First.
Then comes the burning passion to upend those same multilateral organizations.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.