GENEVA – Weeks after becoming U.S. President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley described the U.N.’s Human Rights Council as “so corrupt.” Expect some sparks to fly, then, when she addresses that body for the first time.
En route to the Middle East, Haley drops in Tuesday at the meeting in Geneva to deliver a speech and take part in a “side event” focusing on rights in Venezuela. Her one-day appearance is shaping up as perhaps the standout event of the council’s three-week session because the U.S. has a reputation as a key human-rights defender and is the single largest donor to the United Nations.
Her boss, however, has shaken up that image and raised doubts about America’s global commitments.
Trump is seeking deep cuts in U.S. funding for international organizations like the U.N. and the council. On Thursday, he announced the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate accord, denting Washington’s moral capital. Last month in Riyadh, he announced hundreds of billions of dollars in arms sales over 10 years to Saudi Arabia, which is leading a military campaign in neighboring Yemen that has killed hundreds of civilians.
Despite criticism of the kingdom on issues like women’s rights and quelling of political dissent, Trump insisted: “We are not here to lecture.”
Haley, on the other hand, will most certainly be in Geneva to lecture.
Laying out her tack in an opinion piece Friday in The Washington Post, Haley said the council must “end its practice of wrongly singling out Israel for criticism.” She said “the presence of multiple human rights-violating countries … has damaged both the reputation of the council and the cause of human rights.” She called for “competitive voting to keep the worst human rights abusers from obtaining seats.”
“I will outline changes that must be made,” Haley wrote. “When the world’s pre-eminent human rights body is turned into a haven for dictators, the idea of international cooperation in support of human dignity is discredited.”
The council now counts among its 47 members Burundi, China, Congo, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, all of which have spotty rights records but won seats through its arcane system of regional blocs.
And like all things U.N., it is eminently political: North Korea, for example, has used it to bash racial discrimination and gun violence in the United States, and CIA secret prisons abroad, calling the U.S. “the worst-ever tundra of human rights in the world” in its typically colorful prose during the March council session.
John Fisher, Geneva director for Human Rights Watch, said many will be listening out for Haley’s tone.
“If the tone seeks to set the U.S. above the rest of the world in terms of its commitment to human rights and multilateralism, I think that’s a message that will fall a bit flat” he said.
“That said, if the message is one of ‘Let’s work together’ to strengthen multilateral institutions to the benefit of everyone involved, then I think that’s a message that we can all work with,” he added.
Rights advocates say key stakes in this session include a possible resolution about Congo, where concerns have risen about government repression, and the release of a U.N. human rights office review about how the council’s recommendations on Israel and the Palestinian territories have been applied since 2009 — a subject likely to be watched closely by the U.S. after Haley departs.
U.N. officials say the council is a reflection of the world and insist that human rights would be worse off if it didn’t exist, while acknowledging its shortcomings. They say it’s an important venue to name and shame rights abusers and to hold countries to their own principles, because no country is perfect or fully above reproach.
In her piece, Haley took aim at Cuba, a longtime U.S. nemesis despite a thaw under President Barack Obama, and Venezuela, where protests against the government of President Nicolas Maduro have left at least 60 people dead. She noted the council has been effective at times, such as by helping monitor violations in Syria and North Korea.
But she made no mention of abuses in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, nor the Philippines, whose President Rodrigo Duterte has drawn international scorn for calling for vigilante justice against drug dealers and users. Despite that outrage, Trump has praised Duterte and invited him to the White House.
U.S. criticism of the council is nothing new: President George W. Bush’s administration kept the United States out when it was created in 2006 in part because of repeated criticism of Israel. Obama brought back the U.S. in 2009, hoping to make it more effective and even appointing an ambassador exclusively devoted to the council.
Trump has not nominated anyone to fill that post, and it’s far from certain whether he will.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in March said the United States will not continue participating in the council unless it undergoes “considerable reform,” without elaborating. That same month, Haley told the Council on Foreign Relations : “I mean, the Human Rights Council is so corrupt … I think that we need to look at it.”
“We need to tell them what we want to see to make it effective,” she said.