At the launch of the first virtual session of the United Nations General Assembly last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought center stage to question one of the most historic documents put forward by the U.N. shortly after its inception: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Pompeo presented the findings of the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights via videotape during a U.N. event that took place the same week President Donald Trump delivered his pre-recorded remarks. Over the course of the last year, the Commission revisited the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the lode star for human rights around the globe and the world’s most translated document, in the context of the U.S. Constitution and founding principles.
As much of the international community took stock of staggering contemporary challenges to multilateralism and human rights, Pompeo promoted the heterodox findings of the Commission. Namely, that the global human rights revolution, catalyzed in large part by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the time of the U.N.’s inception, may have worked too well. “There is good reason to worry that the prodigious expansion of human rights has weakened rather than strengthened the claims of human rights…More rights do not always yield more justice,” the Commission’s report concluded.
Although jarring, the Commission’s conclusions should have come as no surprise: They are simply the culmination of the Trump administration’s downward trajectory on protecting human rights and engaging on these issues specifically at the U.N.
Just this month, for example, the U.S. microphone at the U.N. Human Rights Council was silent on the situation in Belarus, where massive protests have taken place against the country’s authoritarian leader. Nor did the United States take the floor when the Human Rights Council discussed combating global racism during an urgent debate requested by hundreds of U.S. non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights advocates, as well as the family of George Floyd. Moreover, the Trump administration’s recent self “report card” on human rights in the United States, posted online by the U.N. in September, is the shortest ever submitted from the United States, and it is unnecessarily combative, and conspicuously cherry-picked.
The practice of the Trump administration turning its back on rights at the U.N. goes well beyond the Human Rights Council.
Last December, the administration torpedoed a U.N. Security Council session on human rights in North Korea for a second year in a row. Its actions broke with years of precedent in which U.S. ambassadors of varying political stripes lobbied Security Council members to debate Pyongyang’s atrocious rights record. In 2019, the United States effectively kneecapped its own effort, despite having support from key allies and partners on the Security Council to move forward.
Recent budgetary moves by the Trump administration are another example of this worrying trend. In September, the State Department again served notice that it would be flouting the will of Congress by “reprogramming” $28 million for the U.N. Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Over the past three years, the Trump administration has unilaterally withheld nearly $60 million in assessed contributions to OHCHR, an especially disdainful action given the bipartisan congressional support for the office.
OHCHR’s role is particularly significant because it helps implement and coordinate international investigations into human rights abuses in North Korea, Myanmar, Venezuela, Iran, and elsewhere. These investigations raise international awareness of rights violations, magnify the voices of human rights defenders and civil society organizations working on the ground, and serve as a tool for applying pressure to repressive governments. They also provide an evidentiary basis that can potentially aid future efforts to hold human rights abusers accountable for their actions.
When funding is denied or delayed, the forums where human rights activists and NGOs voice their concerns cannot operate and the ability to document the actions of abusers is made more difficult. The Trump administration’s withholding of U.S. contributions led U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to announce that OHCHR could be forced to delay planned country-specific human rights assessments due to liquidity issues. (Fortunately, other nations stepped up to fill the funding gap.)
Another area of concern is the Trump administration’s absentee track record of filling openings on U.N. human rights treaty bodies. These treaty bodies are official assemblies of international rights experts tasked with holding governments accountable for implementing the human rights accords they have ratified. They are effectively incubators and accelerators for the maintenance of international law and norms central to fundamental freedoms and human dignity.
Yet, in a break with precedent from the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, Trump has not even nominated a candidate to sit on the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The absence of American presence on the Committee, as well as other unsung, yet influential, bodies, represents a sorely missed opportunity.
The Committee, for example, works to ensure compliance among its 182 State parties and has taken decisive action on issues at the heart of bipartisan U.S. foreign policy priorities, such as grilling China on atrocities committed against ethnic Uyghurs in its territory.
Beyond U.N. treaty bodies, the U.S. government under Trump is also diverging from the precedent set by previous U.S. administrations on overall U.S. engagement with U.N. “special procedures.” Special procedures are individuals with mandates from the U.N. to investigate country-specific or thematic human rights issues. These unpaid and independent experts conduct country visits, can issue emergency communications to governments, and regularly report their findings back to the U.N.
Republican and Democratic administrations alike have traditionally attempted to engage U.N. special procedures, even if on a perfunctory level. Earlier this year, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, received praise on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill and from leading global Jewish advocacy organizations for his report on combating antisemitism.
When it comes to answering typical communications from U.N. special procedures, however, the current administration has all too often remained on the sidelines. Recently, the State Department failed to even acknowledge its receipt of communications from U.N. special procedures. Currently, the administration’s response rate is at a low of 37 percent, almost half the engagement rate of the Obama administration.
Worse than stonewalling special procedures and limiting visits, Trump administration officials have in certain cases even gone on the offensive against these U.N. watchdogs. After an official U.S. visit by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, originally authorized by the Obama administration, then-U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Nikki Haley claimed the expert’s findings were inaccurate, offensive and wasteful. This was a missed opportunity for the United States to constructively address scrutiny of its rights record like any other advanced democracy; instead the administration reflexively attacked an independent rights watchdog.
Constructive U.S. engagement with U.N. special procedures helps set a positive example and bolsters U.S. credibility, especially when the United States calls on regimes violating rights to not hide from these exact same investigations. This year, for instance, Pompeo called out Cuba, via Twitter, for not responding to communications from the U.N. special rapporteurs on combating trafficking and modern slavery.
The picture is not entirely gloomy, however.
One potential bright spot for the Trump administration’s human rights engagement at the U.N. is the State Department’s prioritization of U.N. Human Rights Council reform. Trying to muster diplomatic support to address the Council’s chronically poor membership and anti-Israel bias reflects priorities Republicans and Democrats have long embraced. But multiple reports over many years have made clear that reform is a function of engagement, not withdrawal.
Thus, the administration’s 2018 decision to give up its seat on the Human Rights Council has proven ineffective, unsurprisingly, in accomplishing meaningful reform. In fact, research from the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights found active U.S. membership on the Human Rights Council was a “game-changer,” resulting in a significant drop in anti-Israel resolutions and “scrutiny of many of the world’s worst human rights violators.”
Conversely, the U.S. absence from the Council, together with attempts to strong-arm U.N. institutions through funding cuts, has abetted China’s growing assertiveness in the U.N. system. Even the Heritage Foundation has acknowledged the “concerning” trend of China’s upward trajectory in the U.N. system.
The Trump administration also acknowledged this new reality when the State Department established an unusual new envoy posting charged with countering Chinese influence at the U.N. and other international organizations. But this move falls well short of the United States adopting an overarching strategic policy on China’s growing U.N. influence. This month, the Trump administration awkwardly tweeted support for action by the U.N. Human Rights Council on China, all the while warming the bench in its ongoing boycott.
Overall, sustained pushback against human rights work at the U.N. by the United States has become yet another cornerstone of the Trump administration’s “America First” doctrine. As Pompeo stated unequivocally at the launch of the Commission on Unalienable Rights: “Many [human rights] are worth defending in light of our founding; others aren’t.”
Critics of the Commission are right to be concerned. Whether leaving critical human rights positions unfilled, undercutting U.N. human rights bodies by withholding funds, or attacking U.N. independent rights advocates, Eleanor Roosevelt’s warning more than 60 years ago is more salient than ever: “Without concerted citizen action to uphold [universal human rights] close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”