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.