Less than a year into his presidency, Donald Trump has proved convincingly that there is not a treaty or global agreement he will not abrogate, not a nation or its people (with few exceptions) he will not offend, and not an international institution he will not try to undermine under the rubric of America First. On the scrap heap or in peril are US commitments to the Paris accord on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, hard-won trade agreements, a global compact on refugees, US membership in Unesco, and US aid to virtually all global health programs for girls and women, a victory for powerful American anti-abortion zealots.
In the United Nations system, however, the big prize is still out there: the United Nations Human Rights Council.
In coming weeks, before the council’s winter session opens in late February and runs through March, Trump and his UN envoy and enforcer, Nikki Haley, are likely to take renewed aim at that target. Haley has been voicing skepticism about the council’s value since her Senate confirmation hearing almost a year ago. Early in her UN assignment, she tried but failed to persuade Security Council members to make the Security Council a more important player in human rights, in what looked like an attempt to preemptively sideline the Human Rights Council.
In June, Haley went to Geneva, where the council is based, to present an ultimatum. Either the 47-member council reforms its undemocratic election system and withdraws an agenda item that perennially singles out Israel for condemnation, or the United States will “go elsewhere.” In her warning speech, delivered at the Graduate Institute of Geneva, which offers graduate-level studies and supports research in international affairs and development, Haley said flatly: “If it fails to change, then we must pursue the advancement of human rights outside of the council.”
The coming session could be a stormy one if a new database listing of scores of companies involved with Israeli settlement projects on the West Bank and construction in East Jerusalem is made public. A majority of these companies are apparently American or based in Israel proper. At the direction of the council, these businesses have been told in letters from the UN high commissioner for human rights of the “concern” that they are in violation of UN resolutions—in particular Security Council Resolution 2334 from December 2016 condemning settlement activity. (The Obama administration abstained from voting, allowing it to pass 14-0.) Companies are also accused of violating international conventions on the treatment of people in occupied territories. The Obama decision to let the resolution condemning Israel pass by abstaining brought angry criticism from supporters of Israel. Haley, who has become an uncompromising backer of the Israelis, vowed from the start that she would veto any similar resolution. In December she cast the first US veto in six years in the Security Council on a resolution condemning Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, while all 14 other council members, including US allies, voted for it.
Republicans in Congress willing to punish if not withdraw from the council have already taken note of what some have called UN “blackmail” and an interference in free trade. To add to potential grievances against the Human Rights Council, where the current US term as a member would normally end in 2019, a UN monitor on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston of New York University Law School, released a report in mid-December saying that there had been “a dramatic change of direction in US policies relating to inequality and extreme poverty.” He added: “The proposed tax reform package stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world…shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights.”
Looming over the fate of the UN’s human-rights machinery is the fact that the current high commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan, announced in December that he will not seek a second term when his first ends in August. Zeid, a graduate of Johns Hopkins and Cambridge and a leading scholar of international law, said that to stay on “in the current geopolitical context, might involve bending a knee in supplication,” in other words to have to grovel for support from powerful nations in order to stay in his job for another term.
Zeid has spoken out forcefully on the current rise of populism and nationalism, with a thinly veiled message to Americans and Europeans. At the US Institute of Peace in February, he said: “Time and again, humanity has lost its bearings on the back of half-truths and lies, and the results have been disastrous…. The essential cohesion at the heart of every social fabric, once textured and fluid, is torn apart and replaced by sharp social divisions. That political leaders still do so today in countries where the lessons of two world wars should have been fully absorbed is stupefying.”
A successor to Zeid will be appointed by Secretary General António Guterres, and it will be a significant challenge, as powerful countries exert pressures for favored candidates. This will be true of not only Trump’s Washington but also China. In October, Human Rights Watch published a stunning report on how China has become deeply involved, often successfully, in manipulating the UN system.
China, a member of the Human Rights Council, is doing more than trying to stifle criticism of its record, the report says: “It has taken actions aimed at weakening some of the central mechanisms available in those institutions to advance rights.”
So far there has been no formal Human Rights Council action on the demands Haley made in Geneva in June, though talks among a group of governments and other interested parties, initiated by the Dutch, took place after her Geneva speech. At the end of June, the loose coalition issued a statement mentioning about a dozen negotiating priorities for council reform, with an emphasis on membership qualifications and the noncompetitive system in which regional groups nominate members in the first stage of voting, which many countries agree is imperative. Unqualified member nations could be rejected more easily if there were larger slates of nominees from the regions: Africa, Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Western Europe and Others, which includes Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. An open meeting seeking wider support for negotiating reforms was held on September 19 in New York, sponsored by the Netherlands, Britain, and the United States. Only 40 representatives from the 193 UN member countries showed up, according to a human-rights advocate following the reform discussions.
It is ironic that Haley, while aggressive in her attacks on the council and withering in her responses to criticism from foreign governments on any UN issue dear to the president, especially Israel, has proved to be one of the UN Security Council’s most skillful negotiators on North Korea, to some extent on Syria, and on the future of some peacekeeping missions that Washington believes have outlived their usefulness—“a very effective and impactful ambassador,” a UN official close to the secretary general said off the record. She could play a significant role in forming an international coalition for bringing about Human Rights Council reform, if she chose to, and if she avoided being targeted by dismissive tweets from her boss in the White House, a situation that compromised Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to open links to North Korea through the Chinese. Bellicose Trump, talking tough, tweeted that Tillerson was “wasting his time.”
For Haley, however, the task of building a reform coalition in the council would be an added burden to her activities at UN headquarters. Trump has not appointed an ambassador to Geneva since the former envoy, Keith Harper, resigned last January. Geneva is not like most other empty ambassadorial posts. Geneva is a secondary UN headquarters and the Human Rights Council is only one of the responsibilities of the large American US mission there. The presence of a top-rank UN envoy matters.
At Human Rights Watch, Louis Charbonneau, the organization’s United Nations director, told me that the two US demands of the Human Right Council are not out of line. “The main problem is the membership,” he said. “You have countries coming on that simply don’t belong on the Human Rights Council.” Among those countries with poor human-rights records, he mentioned the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which was elected last fall. But there have been successes. He pointed to Russia’s failure to be reelected in 2016—beaten in voting on Eastern European seats by Hungary and Croatia. The defeat followed a concerted outcry by human-rights groups and governments over Moscow’s support for the Syrian regime in its bombing of civilians in Aleppo. “So you can do it,” Charbonneau said.
A strong coalition including the United States within the council would be critical to changing the attitudes of regional blocs, mostly in Africa and Asia, which can marshal majorities against reform and cling to the practice of submitting closed regional slates offering no voting choices from those areas. If the job of reform is moved outside the council’s purview, progress would be much more difficult, Charbonneau said.
“If they open it up so that you have, say, the General Assembly try to push some sort of reform program, then you’re going to have all sorts of hostile amendments, as we have seen in the past,” he said. “When the Human Rights Council started in 2006 and they were negotiating rules, people were talking about having a two-thirds majority required to condemn countries instead of a simple majority—a very high threshold—to make it more difficult for the council to do the kind of work that it’s meant to do.”
The repeal of Item Seven, which makes Israel the only nation to be perennially up for review and criticism on the council’s agenda, is the second US demand. Charbonneau said that singling out Israel on the council’s permanent agenda was an “anomaly” that detracts attention from other issues. “For example,” he said, “what’s been going on in Egypt for the last four years—the council has pretty much left that alone. And they haven’t really dealt with Venezuela.” He cautions, however, about the consequences of making the repeal of Item Seven an absolute condition for keeping the United States in the council, noting that this provision has been invoked less and less in recent years..
“Simply to walk away because of Israel is basically boiling everything down to protecting one country,” Charbonneau said. “It’s not the right way to do it, and it certainly doesn’t make it look like the US is credibly interested in reforming the Human Rights Council.”