Shadow Government

On the U.N. Human Rights Council, Quitters Are Losers

The United States should stay and fight, not cut and run.

The U.N. Human Rights Council chambers in Geneva on March 24, 2014. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)
The U.N. Human Rights Council chambers in Geneva on March 24, 2014. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration struck a blow to yet another multilateral institution this month when it slashed funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. UNRWA is not a perfect institution, but it has provided critical humanitarian services, including healthcare and education, to Palestinian refugees since 1950. What will be next on the chopping block? We fear it may be the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

After all, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has placed caustic criticism of the council near the center of the U.S. government’s current U.N. policy. Even before it withdrew from the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, turned its back on the U.N. migration compact, and lashed out at UNRWA, the Trump administration threatened to make for the exits in Geneva if the council could not meet U.S. demands. The White House wanted the council to tighten its election procedures to make it harder for abusive governments to join, and to get rid of a standing agenda item that singled out Israel for a unique level of criticism.

The problem isn’t so much with the administration’s objectives for the council (we support both of them), but with the way Trump has chosen to pursue them, seeking to use the threat of quitting as leverage to achieve reform. This strategy won’t work, and will damage both the council and U.S. human rights policy. Here are five reasons why:

U.S. withdrawal would be a gift to dictators and strongmen. At the Human Rights Council, the prospect of U.S. withdrawal isn’t regarded so much as a threat as an opportunity by the many authoritarian governments that are eager to swarm in and fill the vacuum. Before the United States joined the council and appointed a full-time ambassador in 2010, countries like China, Cuba, and Pakistan ruled the roost. Since then — under both Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump — the United States’ enormous diplomatic capabilities have helped keep the authoritarians in check. If the United States pulls out, Geneva could once again be a playground for strongmen.

U.S. withdrawal would undermine the council’s good work. A cut-and-run strategy gives short shrift to the valuable work that the council now does, which it would find much harder to continue if the United States were to pull its participation and support.

To offer just a few examples, the council is largely to thank for putting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s grotesque mistreatment of his own people on the international agenda, and it also created a special rapporteur on human rights in Iran. When Russia and China blocked the Security Council from acting on Syria, Geneva got the wheels of justice turning by creating a commission to document atrocities committed by by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and by the Islamic State. It addition, it has taken similar steps in support of accountability, from Myanmar to Libya to Burundi. And the council has also done critically important work with landmark resolutions on LGBTQ human rights and gender equality that recognize the dignity of people whose own governments seek to deny it.

How much does all of this work matter? Quite a lot, according to civil society representatives from around the world. It gives their efforts hope and legitimacy. It points a bright spotlight on dictators and thugs. And it creates a political cost for repressive regimes, which is one reason they tend to push back hard when the council bears down on them.

There’s no real substitute for the Human Rights Council. The Trump administration’s withdrawal strategy seems to presume that there will be plenty of multilateral forums where the United States can work to advance human rights if it backs away from Geneva. In her June 2017 remarks to the Human Rights Council, Haley spoke of “other venues” to which the United States might turn. But in the U.N. system, it’s hard to see what those would be. In the Security Council, Russia and China have vetoes. In the General Assembly, huge voting blocs are more a hindrance than a help to human rights efforts. Geneva, by comparison, is a pretty good place to do business.

If you want to defend your friends, you have to show up. The United States has had more success defending its friends in Geneva when it has been at the table than when it has walked away. One reason the council’s agenda includes a standing item focused on Israel is that the United States sat on the sidelines while that agenda was being negotiated back in 2006. And the Obama administration liked to point out that before it joined the council in 2010, there had been six special sessions focused on Israel in the course of three and a half years, while in the seven-year period after it joined and appointed a full-time ambassador, there was only one.

The United States’ own credibility on human rights is at low ebb. The United States very much needs the council to deliver human rights messages that the country cannot effectively deliver itself. The Trump administration has not been uniform in its approach to human rights and has undermined its own messaging capacity — including through Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s effort last spring to separate “values” from “policy,” and a leaked memo authored by one of his senior aides arguing that the United States should reserve human rights criticism for its adversaries. Against this backdrop, human rights criticism coming from Washington has an increasingly tinny ring to it, particularly when leveled at a country like Iran with which the United States has a deeply fraught relationship. Perhaps this is one reason why Haley announced earlier this month that she would urge Geneva to hold a special session on Iran’s heavy-handed response to protests.

We are not arguing that the United States should shelve its reform efforts. Improving the council’s election procedures and addressing its structural bias against Israel would make it a far stronger institution and a more effective force for human rights. But if the United States is serious about reform, it will need to mount a serious diplomatic effort with a realistic timeline, actual leverage (that goes beyond a threat to quit), and persistent senior-level engagement. It will also have to be prepared to proceed in steps. The United States might, for example, seek to persuade traditional partners to agree voluntarily to measures that would advance its goals while it builds support for more formal and durable changes. Certainly it could do more in the way of actively recruiting candidates with strong human rights records.

Will it? We are doubtful. We fear that the administration is less than fully serious about reform, and instead sees the council as a sacrificial lamb in waiting, to be offered up when Washington encounters a sufficiently weighty frustration with the U.N. system. If that is the case, then it is just a matter of time until the United States walks away. Still, we will hold out hope that situations like the recent Iran unrest will remind the administration of what would be lost if it were to take this unfortunate step, for the United States, its partners, and vulnerable people around the world.

Keith M. Harper served as U.S. ambassador and permanent representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council during the second term of the Obama administration, and is currently a partner at Kilpatrick Townsend and Stockton.
Stephen Pomper served as a special assistant to the president and senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights in the Obama White House, and is currently the U.S. program director for the International Crisis Group. Twitter: @StephenPomper

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