US Ambassador the UN Nikki Haley gave a major speech in Geneva outlining the Trump administration’s future participation in the Human Rights Council. After months of internal debate, she announced that the United States will remain a member of the Council…For now, at least.
The US does not seek to leave the UN Human Rights Council, she said. But “see to establish its legitimacy.” To that end, Haley outlined two key areas of reform that would drive a future decision by the United States over whether or not to pull its support: Council membership and the Council’s treatment of Israel.
These two issues have dogged American participation in the UN Human Rights Council since it was created in 2005. The George W. Bush administration opted to stay out of the Council. The Obama administration opted to join the council and work toward reform from within. And now, it seems the Trump administration will base a decision on whether to pull its funding and political support from the HRC over whether or not the Council takes meaningful steps towards enacting these reforms.
How do countries with poor human rights records get to sit on the Human Rights Council?
On membership, the basic problem is that too many members of the 47 member body are undemocratic countries with mediocre–and sometimes plainly bad–human rights records. So how do they get to sit on the UN’s most important human rights platform? Politics.
The Human Rights Council follows a guiding UN principle of “equitable geographic distribution” in which membership to the council is apportioned based on the number of countries in their region. So, Africa gets 13 seats, Western Europe and Others (which includes the United States, Israel, Canada and other western liberal democracies) gets 7 seats; Asia-Pacific (which includes all of Asia plus the middle east) gets 13 seats; eastern Europe gets 6 seats; and Latin America and the Caribbean gets 8 seats. Countries are elected to serve three year terms, and a country cannot serve more than two consecutive three year terms.
To be elected to the council, a country must gain a majority of votes in the General Assembly — meaning at least 96 other countries must support the candidacy. This, in theory, should keep the worst offenders from winning a seat. But regions game the system by colluding among themselves to nominate the same number of countries as there are open seats in their geographical region.
Last October, for example, the list of candidates looked like this:
So, Egypt and Saudi Arabia sailed to victory. (Meanwhile, the United States and the United Kingdom did not exactly lead by example either and also ran unopposed). On the other hand, the two regions where there were competitive elections did produce some interesting results. Russia, for one, was embarrassed by a narrow loss — 2 votes — which was largely attributed to its bombing of Aleppo at the time. To be sure, competitive elections are no panacea from a US perspective: Cuba won its seat, besting Guatemala. Still, having more competitive elections is something for which the human rights NGO community has been advocating for years. And now, it seems, they have a vocal champion in the US ambassador to the UN. “No competition means no scrutiny of human rights records,” said Haley.
One key question is if the US will walk the talk when it is up for re-election in 2019.
Why the Focus on Israel?
It is true that the Israel is the only country singled out as permeant agenda item for the Council, which is both unfair and also a reflection of broad international concern over its fifty-year military occupation of Palestinian territories. Nikki Haley called the council’s approach to Israel a “relentless and pathological campaign.”
But from an American perspective, the key question is whether or not the US is better served by staying in the Council and protect its ally while advancing other priorities, or whether pulling out would de-ligitimize the council and therefore protect Israel by weakening the council as a whole.
It is anomalous that the council’s sole regular agenda item devoted to a single location is its “Item 7,” concerning Israel’s conduct in the occupied Palestinian territories. Yet criticism of Israel represents a tiny fraction of the council’s overall work. As a member of the council, the U.S. government can fight to abolish Item 7. Human rights concerns about Israel can still be addressed under other agenda items, as are those involving other governments. But U.S. departure from the council would be the surest way to guarantee that an excessive focus on Israel continues or even intensifies.
People concerned about the council’s treatment of Israel know this, which is why many are reluctant for the United States to leave the council. But given the inevitable criticism of a country entering its 50th year of military occupation, some would rather delegitimize the council, which they calculate a U.S. withdrawal would do. Yet such a calculation means that a single issue would hijack the full range of U.S. human rights initiatives at the council. The dictatorships of the world would celebrate if such a one-dimensional foreign policy were to prevail in Washington.
So Should the US Stay or Go?
In her remarks, Haley was stridently non-ideological about the Council– saying it should be judged on its merits. “It would benefit the US to have a strong human rights council,” she said. “It would benefit the international community to have a strong human rights council.”
This is a departure from the Bush administration’s view of the Council and more in line with the Obama administration’s approach, which recognized its flaws while simultaneously seeking to reform the council and advance US interests within it.
In her exit memo, Haley’s predecessor Samantha Power explained the US position and how the Obama administration was able to achieve discrete policy goals through sticking with the council.
In 2009, we joined the UN Human Rights Council – the primary body in the UN system responsible for promoting human rights and addressing human rights violations – notwithstanding its disproportionate focus on Israel or the fact that a number of its members are better known for abusing human rights than protecting them. We believe that we are more effective in championing open societies, political and civil freedoms, and norms of moderation and tolerance by harnessing the UN system to defend human rights, and we have amassed a significant track record of using the Council to advance our values and interests.
Through our active leadership, we have helped to authorize international commissions or rapporteurs empowered to investigate, expose, and address the human rights situation in some of the world’s most abusive countries, including Iran, Syria, North Korea, Sudan, and Russian-occupied Crimea. We thwarted efforts by Iran in 2010 and Syria in 2011 to join the UN Human Rights Council; and we spearheaded the unprecedented decision to suspend Qaddhafi’s Libya from the UN Human Rights Council in 2011. In response to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s atrocities against Tamil civilians, the United States led the UN Human Rights Council beginning in 2012 to adopt resolutions insisting on accountability for Rajapaksa’s abuses. This diplomatic isolation reportedly influenced some Sri Lankan voters, who in 2015 voted Rajapaksa out of office and elected Maithripala Sirisena, who has worked to enact a far reaching reform program. Although it is highly problematic that the UN Human Rights Council still includes only one permanent agenda item – not on North Korea or Syria, but rather on Israel – through our leadership in the Council since 2009 we have succeeded in getting the body to expand its focus, reducing by half the share of country-specific resolutions on Israel.
Now, Ambassador Haley will have to decide whether or not the flaws that she sees in the council will outweigh the benefits to be gained by staying with it. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how–if at all — other countries respond. The first key test will be this fall when 15 seats open up for election.