The Trump Administration’s Brazen Duplicity in its “Human Rights Agenda”

Earlier this month, the State Department announced, through Facebook and a blog post under the byline of Assistant Secretary for International Organizations Kevin Moley, that despite its withdrawal in late June from the U.N. Human Rights Council, the Trump Administration would continue to promote human rights globally. What is most important about Moley’s pronouncement is not the fairly mundane content but that it makes unmistakably clear just how duplicitous Ambassador Nikki Haley’s withdrawal decision is in the final analysis.

To understand why, we must review the Haley announcement and the purported basis for the U.S. withdrawal. Haley’s decision to leave the Council was both expected and ill advised. Expected because the Human Rights Council has long been a favorite bogeyman of the hard Right – the John Bolton types. And Haley has repeatedly demonstrated that she is far more worried with pleasing the hard Right base – in what many consider a transparent effort to secure future political ambitions – than actually advancing U.S. foreign policy interests. It is demonstrably ill-advised because as I’ve argued previously – despite its undeniable warts – the Council has significantly advanced U.S. interests during the time when the U.S. has been a member.

The Haley announcement was made with typical Trumpian-style rhetoric – overheated and hyperbolic – at one point calling the Council “a cesspool of political bias,” whatever that means. But when one sets aside the fire and brimstone, Haley’s reasons for withdrawal from the Council ostensibly boil down to two. The first reason she identifies is that “[h]uman rights abusers continue to serve on and be elected to the council.” And the second is because of the Council’s “chronic bias against Israel.”

To be clear, I have no quarrel with these criticisms of the Council. The fact that countries with abysmal human rights records such as China, Venezuela and Egypt are members does, without doubt, erode the Council’s credibility. There can also be little question that the Council spends far too much of its limited time and resources on scrutinizing the State of Israel. That is why it remains proper for the U.S. to refuse to participate in the Council’s stand-alone agenda item targeting Israel and urging other member states to follow our lead. My dispute is not with Haley’s recognition of these manifest institutional vagaries, but rather her reaction to them. Withdrawing from the Council is plainly an overreaction. It may feel good to take your ball and go home, but it inevitably raises the question as to whether the Administration is sincerely committed to promoting human rights observance.

Sensitive to this foreseeable criticism, Haley goes out of her way to deny the Trump Administration’s surrender of universal values promotion, stating that in pulling out of the Council, Haley “want[s] to make it crystal clear that this step is not a retreat from human rights commitments.” But that is precisely what it is and what it should be viewed as – an unjustified retreat which will harm our national interest.

We need look no further than Moley’s recent announcement to understand how absurd Haley’s explanation really is. Moley says that instead of the Human Rights Council, the U.S. will now “pursue a robust human rights agenda at the United Nations General Assembly’s Third Committee” and “redouble our efforts to bring human rights issues to the attention of the Security Council.” But if the principal irredeemable flaws of the Human Rights Council are human rights abusing states as members and an anti-Israel bias, the Trump Administration has jumped out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire.

The General Assembly vs. Human Rights Council

Take the General Assembly, for example. Haley says that the presence of states such as China, Cuba, Congo, and Venezuela on the Human Rights Council is a basis to withdraw from it. But all of these countries are voting members of the General Assembly as well. Worse than that the General Assembly also gives a vote to Iran, North Korea, Eritrea, South Sudan and Syria. So if as Haley claims the presence of “authoritarian governments with unambiguous and abhorrent human rights records” makes the Human Rights Council incapable of promoting human rights, then how possibly can a body that has now and, by design, will always have North Korea and Syria be capable? At least with the Council, over time with sustained diplomatic effort one can adjust the membership.  Not so for the General Assembly. Despite all this, it is now the official position of the State Department per Moley that the General Assembly is where U.S. rights promotion will occur.

Haley’s hypocrisy with respect to Israel fairs no better. While true that the Council routinely passes more resolutions on Israel than extreme rights-violating states such as Syria, so does the General Assembly, but far more egregiously. In 2016, for example, the Council adopted five resolutions on Israel and four resolutions condemning Syria. By contrast, the most recent General Assembly adopted 21 resolutions critical of Israel and only one on Syria, according to UN Watch. Apparently the Trump Administration’s position is that passing five resolutions on Israel at the Human Rights Council is basis to abandon the body, but adoption of 21 resolutions on Israel at the General Assembly is reason to make that UN organ the entity to “pursue a robust human rights agenda” in Assistant Secretary Moley’s words.

What’s more, Haley’s withdrawal from the Council ignores the impact of effective US diplomacy within the Council in chipping away at the bias against Israel. One example will suffice. The Council’s heaviest medicine is a special session – an emergency meeting called when a country’s human rights situation is so grave that the Council cannot wait for its regularly scheduled meeting. In the first three and half years at the Council, when the Bush Administration sat on the sidelines, there were six special sessions on Israel. After joining the Council led by a full-time U.S. ambassador during the Obama Administration, there was one special session in seven years. It is thus not surprising that Israeli senior foreign ministry officials reportedly voiced grave concern that the US departure would leave Israel more vulnerable.

Haley’s desire to serve the hard Right base also forces her to feign ignorance of the efficacy of the Human Rights Council in comparison to the General Assembly in actually promoting human rights. The General Assembly has a discernably weak record on rights promotion. When reports emerge regarding a deteriorating human rights situation or atrocities in a country, passing condemnatory resolutions in and of themselves are not particularly effective. But that is about as much as the General Assembly does typically. What can be effective is putting in place investigatory mechanisms such as a commission of inquiry, special rapporteur or independent expert. These independent investigatory bodies often referred to as special procedures have been called the “crown jewel” of the multilateral human rights system by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan. They are designed to be independent and therefore somewhat insulated from the politics of the appointing institution. The General Assembly only on the rarest of occasions creates such investigatory bodies. It can’t be trusted to do much more in the foreseeable future.

By contrast, the Council routinely creates such investigatory bodies for states facing human rights crises and has done so for Myanmar, North Korea, Iran, Eritrea, Syria, South Sudan, Sudan, Burundi, Cambodia, Central African Republic, Sir Lanka and many others. It is these bodies along with excellent reporting from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights which actually documents the abuses and rights violations. Such independent assessments by trusted experts of conditions on the ground is ever more important in a world where governments engage in sophisticated disinformation campaigns to cloud the truth. This “naming and shaming” has, in important cases, proven effective and is certainly a far more plausible means of rights promotion than the limited and feeble resolution promulgation exercise that typically occurs in the General Assembly. This is true generally speaking but is particularly true now that Haley’s famous “taking names” style of diplomacy has proven such a dismal failure.

Moreover, the Human Rights Council enjoys other features which make it a far more desirable institution to address human rights. For one thing, civil society participates openly and as a matter of course at the Council, not so in the General Assembly. The Council with 47 members is far more manageable and adroit. The Council reviews every country’s human rights record through the Universal Periodic Review – dramatically expanding the political bandwidth for rights promotion.

The Security Council vs. Human Rights Council

Moley also identified the Security Council as a rights promoting body. But the idea that the Security Council can serve as a principal body to promote human rights is simply ludicrous upon closer examination. First of all, if membership matters, recall that China and Russia – both with deplorable human rights records – are not only permanent members but each wields a veto on any Security Council action. Moreover, rights violating states beyond China and Russia are routinely members of the Council; Ethiopia is presently, Egypt was a member last year, and Venezuela the year prior.

Second, because of the permanent member veto, the Security Council is largely viewed as feckless in most situations. With respect to the Syrian war for example, Russia threatened or used its veto to block any sincere effort to intervene in the bloody conflict, despite hundreds of thousands of deaths. At the same time, in stark contradistinction, the Human Rights Council has passed over 20 resolutions and created and sustained a Commission of Inquiry which is the only credible body systematically documenting Assad’s atrocities.

Let’s look at the example of Security Council human rights promotion that Haley herself touts during her announcement to fully comprehend the absurdity of her position. Haley claims that the Human Rights Council did nothing regarding Iran while she bragged that “we did have a Security Council session on Iranian human rights in New York.” But what did the Security Council session actually produce – other than a statement from Haley and a few others?  Zip. No investigatory mechanism, no follow up, nothing. In contrast, due to the work of the United States in the Obama Administration working with key allies like Sweden, the Human Rights Council appointed a Special Rapporteur to investigate and document Iran’s grotesque human rights violations. In contrast to Haley’s one-off session, the Rapporteur has created and sustained intense scrutiny of Iran. A report will be produced documenting with granularity the rights violations by the Iranian regime. The benefit of these documenting mechanisms – and why autocrats and tyrants despise them – is precisely because they provide evidence for their crimes for all the world to see.

In short, in the best of times, the Security Council is far too often a feeble means to promote human rights, largely due to the Chinese and Russian veto. And these are hardly the best of times. One need look no further than the failed attempt by Haley to have U.N. High Commissioner for Human rights, Zeid Raad al Hussein, brief the Council on continuing gross and systematic abuses by the Assad regime. China’s skilled diplomats outmaneuvered Haley’s team and blocked the discussion. Because Haley has so alienated other member states, she is not even capable of having a mere discussion at the Security Council on human rights in arguably the gravest situation in the world. Yet, somehow, the State Department now believes this is the best multilateral institution to promote human rights?

So what is really going on here? Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation is the best one. The Trump Administration simply could care less about human rights. That seems the most plausible conclusion. It should not come as a surprise to anyone. After all, Haley carries water for a President who openly advocates for the use of torture. Trump routinely compliments autocrats and bloodthirsty dictators. When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered extra-judicial killings of thousands as his preferred method to fight drugs, Trump called Duterte to congratulate him on “unbelievable job on the drug problem.” As Turkey descends deeper into autocracy under Erdogan, Trump has thought Erdogan was “getting very high marks.” Months later while calling the EU his “foe,” Trump fist bumped Erdogan and noted that he was “doing things the right way.” As the Saudis indiscriminately bomb schools and hospitals in Yemen causing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, Trump complimented the Saudis for taking “strong action against Houthi militants in Yemen.”

Trump has a hard time hiding his admiration and at times envy for dictators. Calling the world’s worst human rights transgressor Kim Jong Un “strong,” Trump openly regretted not having the same authoritarian powers to make “his people” “sit up straight” in his presence. Trump considered it an “honor” – his words – to meet Kim, lavishing praise on the “very talented man.” When China’s Xi Jinping consolidated power to become head of state for life, in essence, Trump could not help voicing his admiration for the “great gentleman” and openly pondered if the United States should follow suit.

Trump admires dictators, rights abusers and autocrats. His policies such as family separation of asylum seekers flouts U.S. and international law. And so it should shock no one that his Administration would downgrade the promotion of human rights in an unprecedented fashion. As regrettable as that may be, it would be almost understandable if Haley simply followed suit and also did not prioritize human rights.

My quarrel with her is not that exactly. It is in the utterly objectionable manner in which she has attempted to deceive the American people. It is the duplicity that’s the real problem. Her withdrawal from the Human Rights Council is precisely because she works for a President who fails to demonstrate any real regard for human dignity, universal values or the rule of law for that matter. It is decidedly not about the fact that human rights violators serve on the Council or that Israel is targeted. If so, the Trump Administration would not try to sell the bizarre idea that the General Assembly and the Security Council are the preferred institutions to promote human rights.

Image: U.S. Department of State via Flickr

 

About the Author(s)

Ambassador (ret.) Keith Harper

Partner at Kilpatrick, Townsend & Stockton LLP, Non-Resident Fellow at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs, Former United States Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council (2014-2017) Follow him on Twitter (@AmbHarper).