In the middle of last week, when the Trump administration was still unable to say how it “lost” more than 2,500 children torn from their asylum-seeking parents at the border with Mexico, Nikki Haley, the United States envoy to the United Nations, was telling a different story to a sympathetic group in Washington, D.C.
“We are a special nation with a special message for the world,” Haley told a receptive audience at the conservative Heritage Foundation on July 18. “We are a country founded on human dignity; on the revolutionary idea that all men are created equal with rights including, but not limited to, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness . . . [it] is non-negotiable.”
Not only was her 27-minute speech billed as an explanation as to why the Trump administration left the UN Human Rights Council in June and what happens next, but it was also an opportunity for Haley to try to blame others for a situation that, she said, made continued US membership untenable. (To watch the video, click here.)
She first attacked other nations — foes and friends — who didn’t meet her specific demands for Council reform, which boiled down over the last year to two inflexible issues: the method of choosing members of the 47-member Council, created by the General Assembly in 2006 as a free-standing body; and eliminating an item perennially on its agenda to condemn Israel’s policies and actions against the Palestinians. It is known as Item 7.
In her remarks at the Heritage Foundation she called that item “a blazing red siren signaling the Human Rights Council’s political corruption and moral bankruptcy.”
“The United Nations was founded for a noble purpose — to promote peace and security based on based on justice, equal rights and the self-determination of people,” she said. “But it has many member nations whose leaders completely reject that purpose.”
Then came the innuendo directed at countries that had urged compromise and had suggested more workable ways to achieve American aims, which were shared by others but who would not act in response to threats from Haley.
“When that happens,” Haley said, referring to the barriers to change erected by nations often in the majority on the Council and the world at large, “many well meaning countries adopt a position of neutrality in the hope of coming to agreement with these nations.”
Compromise was never on Haley’s mind — not since she took up her ambassadorial position at the UN in January 2017. By June of that year, she was publicly denouncing half-measures or incremental solutions. Human-rights advocates became increasingly critical of her intransigence and unwillingness to use American power to assist in finding acceptable paths to reform. Trump had chosen not to appoint an American ambassador to Geneva, a post with significant influence in the Council, and other UN-related organizations in the Swiss city. Geneva is the second-most important UN headquarters after New York.
In a speech on June 6, 2017, at the Graduate Institute of Geneva, a think tank and academic institution, Haley said after making a cameo appearance of less than three minutes at the Human Rights Council: “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.”
If Haley’s attitude weren’t enough to make a complete break with the Council, the arrival in the White House of John Bolton as Trump’s national security adviser sealed its fate. In 2006, at the Council’s founding, Bolton was an interim ambassador to the UN — he was judged unable to be confirmed by the US Senate — he tried to weaken the Council and then played a pivotal role in keeping the US out of it. President Barack Obama joined it in 2009.
In her speech at the Heritage Foundation on July 18, Haley leveled her most brutal assault on nongovernmental organizations for rejecting, even more than government, her ultimatums.
“What was more baffling was the resistance we received from groups . . . that should know better.
“The private groups that usually do good work on behalf of human rights,” she said. “So you can imagine our surprise when they came out publicly against our reforms telling other countries to vote against us. Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch sided with Russia and China on a critical human rights issue.
“The NGOS were afraid that opening up the Human Rights Council to changes would result in hostile amendments in the General Assembly that would make the Council even worse. Think about that for a second. Their view is that a bad situation can’t be improved because it could get worse?”
Her comments revealed either a lack of understanding of the sometimes-destructive decisions the General Assembly has made to weaken existing, often hard-fought initiatives. Or they showed a general reluctance, shared by her superiors in the White House, to accept that the world’s majority of nations are no longer in the traditionally Western or democratic-industrial societies’ camp.
The NGOs’ concern on this issue was shared by numerous nations friendly to the US, including the Netherlands, which was leading the effort to reform the Human Rights Council from within by coalition building and compromise.
Then, in her Heritage Foundations speech, came Haley’s most shocking critique of human-rights professionals:
“These NGOs’ unwillingness to change the status quo also comes from their institutional comforts,” she said. “They have big staffs and lots of relationships with the UN bureaucracy. Change is threatening to them. If we approached everything with their attitude, nothing would ever improve and complacency would rule the day.”
Returning to her sense of betrayal, Haley took unsubstantiated credit in her remarks for the claim that the US had devoted more than a year to leading the fight for Human Rights Council reform on her terms, but was let down by like-minded democratic countries whose courage failed them.
“These countries share our belief in the inherent dignity of every human being, yet they lack the courage to make a difference,” she said. “They have a voice. They just refused to use it.”
No mention was ever made of Muslim bans and the inhumanity on the Mexican border shown to desperate people fleeing violence of every kind in Central America. Some human-rights advocates also found astonishing that Haley has never acknowledged some of the most important work by the Council, such as setting up the independent international commission of inquiry on Syria.
Instead, Haley made this breathtaking assertion at the Heritage Foundation: “To this day, the United States does more for human rights, both inside the UN, and around the world, than any other country.”
Just how much influence the Trump administration or specifically Haley will have in UN decisions on human-rights issues is soon to be tested as potential candidates are emerging to fill the position of UN high commissioner for human rights, when the term of the current commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, ends in late August.
Names of possible candidates for the position, which will be filled through appointment by Secretary-General António Guterres, currently include Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile and founding executive director of UN Women; Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, the former director-general of Unesco; Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi, an Argentinian judge who was until recently president of the International Criminal Court; and Kyung-wha Kang, the foreign minister of South Korea and a former deputy high commissioner for human rights. In addition, Volker Turk, an Austrian who is an executive in the UN Refugee Agency, is said to be a candidate.
Guterres has indicated that he wants to appoint a woman, and Kang may be the strongest contender.
As high commissioner, Zeid, a Jordanian scholar of international affairs and a human-rights advocate, has been an outspoken critic of the US under Trump and other populist-nationalist leaders. He has also been pressured by China to cut back on UN enforcement of rights around the world, including in peacekeeping missions. He refused to be considered for a second term, saying he would not “bend a knee” before the powerful to continue in his job.
And the country that replaced the US in the Human Rights Council, through the end of next year? Iceland.
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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.