Nikki Haley wants to ‘reestablish legitimacy’ of UN Human Rights Council

Nikki Haley, Permanent Representative of the United Sates of America to the United Nations in New York at a 35th Session of the Human Rights Council. June 6, 2017. (Credit: U.N. Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré / Flickr)

After posturing to withdraw for months, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley announced yesterday in Geneva that the U.S. will remain on the Human Rights Council for now – on conditions.

Haley had two demands: Reform membership elections and address the council’s “chronic anti-Israel bias.”

“America does not seek to leave the Human Rights Council. We seek to reestablish the council’s legitimacy,” Haley said in a speech at the Graduate Institute of Geneva following her first address to the council.

Haley, the former Republican governor of South Carolina, has been an outspoken critic of the “political manipulation” by members on the U.N. Human Rights Council. In March, she called it “so corrupt” at the Council on Foreign Relations.

According to human rights advocates, her concerns are not without merit. Several member states on the council stand accused of serious human rights violations.

“Countries like Venezuela, Cuba, China, Burundi, and Saudi Arabia occupy positions that obligate them to, in the words of the resolution that created the Human Rights Council, ‘uphold the highest standards’ of human rights,” Haley said. “They clearly do not uphold those highest standards.”

By requiring a majority of vote in the U.N. General Assembly to win a seat at the council, one might expect the election process would keep the worst violators from serving. However, regional blocs have rigged the system by nominating only as many countries as there are open seats in their geographical region. Without competition, countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt had no problems winning a seat. Russia, on the other hand, was foiled by two votes in a competitive region.

“No competition means no scrutiny of candidates’ human rights records,” Haley said.

She also wants to eliminate the secret ballot, because countries should be accountable for their votes, she said. Some human rights advocates agree.

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“I think it’s important that we hold accountable all countries, including Western countries, who use these election processes to form political relationships with countries that are bad on human rights but are politically and strategically important to engage with,” Stephanie Johanssen, the U.N. and EU director at the Global Justice Center, told Humanosphere.

However, others are concerned that open ballots might make weaker states vulnerable to political pressure and retaliation from candidates. For example, what might Russia do in response to those two members that prevented it from winning a seat at the council?

Haley’s other big issue is Agenda Item Seven, which singles out Israel as a permanent fixture on the council’s agenda. This has been an issue for which previous administrations, including the Obama Administration, have also criticized the council.

“It’s hard to accept that this council has never considered a resolution on Venezuela, and yet it adopted five biased resolutions in March against a single country, Israel,” Haley said in her first address to the council. “It is essential that this council address its chronic anti-Israel bias, if it is to have any credibility.”

Haley also called out the council for failing to condemn Cuba, Russia and Zimbabwe. But some human rights advocates noted that she made no mention of Egypt, whose authoritarian leader Trump recently praised for doing a “fantastic job.”

Akila Radhakrishnan

“A part of the commentary on this bias or lack of bias focuses solely on the political decisions of the Human Rights Council,” Akila Radhakrishnan, vice-president and legal director of the Global Justice Center, told Humanosphere. “The Human Rights Council is an umbrella for a variety of incredibly important U.N. mechanisms, the majority of which are not working on Israel – commissions of inquiry into situations in Syria and in Myanmar, special procedures and experts who look at particular thematic issues and country investigations.”

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What the council offers in terms in documentation and interpretation is hugely important to the development of human rights, according to Radhakrishnan. And if the U.S. were to pull out, she thinks it would hurt the U.S. more than the council.

“I think it does a lot to harm the legitimacy of the United States if the U.S. chooses to remove itself from a position of showing that it considers human rights to be important,” she said. “The global architecture of human rights goes far beyond one western state.”

Others noted that withdrawing from the council would actually hurt Israel more. “Such an action would be likely to result in the remaining members of the Council unfairly targeting Israel to an even greater degree,” eight human rights organizations wrote in a letter to Haley before she went to Geneva.

For now, the U.S. has decided to remain and take the Obama Administration’s tactic of attempting to reform the council from within.

“A good starting-point would be a joint statement, perhaps at the closing of this [Human Rights Council] session, outlining the commitment of member states to competitive elections, to candidate pledges and to objective criteria for addressing a broader range of situations without selectivity,” Human Rights Watch wrote in a statement today.

However, even though human rights advocates mostly agree with the changes Haley has called for, many say the administration she represents is undermining her attempts to proclaim the U.S. as a champion for human rights.

“From an advocacy standpoint, every single country is a human rights violator,” Radhakrishnan said. “Yes, some are particularly egregious, but I think that the U.S. is slowly creeping its way to become one of them itself under this administration.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.