U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley wants to talk about human rights. Yesterday she did just that at the first-ever Security Council meeting dedicated solely to the topic. Although the U.S. mission celebrated the event as “history-making,” opposition from several member states prevented it from becoming a recurring agenda, and many human rights organizations are skeptical – even critical.
“I am here today asserting that the protection of human rights is often deeply intertwined with peace and security,” Haley said in her opening remarks, challenging the traditional separation of human rights from Security Council discussions. “In case after case, human rights violations and abuses are not merely the incidental byproduct of conflict, they are the trigger for conflict.”
“When a state begins to systematically violate human rights, it is a sign, it is a red flag, it’s a blaring siren, one of the clearest possible indicators that instability and violence may follow and spill across borders,” she added.
As president of the Security Council this month, Haley sought to make the broad issue of human rights a fixed and recurring agenda, not just discussions of specific situations in specific countries. However, Russia and China – who insist such dialogue infringes on state sovereignty and domestic jurisdiction – opposed the measure, as well as Egypt, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan and Bolivia. Senegal’s support was unclear.
Instead of adding a new agenda item called “Human Rights and International Peace and Security,” the states agreed to hold the thematic debate under the pre-existing “Maintenance of International Peace and Security” agenda item.
“Indeed prevention and settlement of armed conflicts are the main prerequisites for correcting human rights situations, and not vice versa,” Russia’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Evgeny Zagaynov said, stressing that the Security Council is not intended to ensure compliance with human rights as that is dealt with elsewhere in the U.N.
Although opposition from states like Russia and China was not a surprise, human rights organizations voiced objections as well. For many, it appeared to be a hypocritical ploy by the Trump administration to paint itself as the moral conscience of the world, while many of Donald Trump’s actions in his first three months as president have undermined those very principles.
“If the U.S. administration wants to show it has a genuine commitment to human rights, then it needs to take a serious look at its recent policies,” Sherine Tadros, head of Amnesty International’s U.N. office in New York, told the New York Times. “You can’t have directives coming from Washington that are distinctly anti-human rights and then say you’re championing human rights at the U.N.”
Groups cited the Trump’s visa ban against six Muslim majority nations; his funding cut to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), which provides essential health care for millions of vulnerable women around the world; his praise of Egypt’s strongman president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Turkey’s authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent referendum victory that further expands his powers.
Against this backdrop, rights advocates are worried that Haley’s approach of “taking names” will lead to even greater politicization of human rights as countries like Russia and China point out U.S. abuses to distract from their own.
“We very much welcome the discussion of human rights in the Security Council, and we actually agree that the Security Council should have a stronger emphasis on human rights,” Stephanie Johanssen, the U.N. and EU director at the Global Justice Center, told Humanosphere.
“But what we are concerned about is how the U.S. is pushing these agenda items forward knowing that there will be resistance and knowing that the U.S. human rights record here at home is far from perfect. That is what we are concerned about – that it leads to a further polarization of human rights,” she said.
Johanssen and her colleagues are also concerned that the “history-making” meeting is “preparing the narrative” for the U.S. to say that the Human Rights Council is no longer needed and withdraw from the institution. In October, the U.S. was elected to serve a three-year term on the council, but just last month Haley called it “so corrupt,” while speaking to a group at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“We think it’s a part of a larger U.S. strategy against the Human Rights Council, which does incredibly important work that’s different than the work of the Security Council, both of which need to be involved in human rights,” Akila Radhakrishnan, vice-president and legal director of the Global Justice Center, told Humanosphere.
Radhakrishnan and Johanssen agreed that as an institution of politics, the Human Rights Council is flawed, but the council’s review of each U.N. member state’s human rights record every four years is critical for the accountability that Haley says she wants to see in the U.N.
If Haley wanted to expand the discussion of human rights, she should have invited more stakeholders, such as NGO workers or victims of human rights abuses, to participate in the dialogue instead of limiting it to the 15-member council, they said.
“At the end of the day, it is very clear where her loyalty stands,” Johanssen said, despite Haley’s claims that she works independently with the support of the administration.
The U.S. mission spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
“The United States should be trying to strengthen all U.N. human bodies that fight for human rights,” Johanssen wrote in press release, “not look for ways to subvert them or cut their funding.”