Nikki Haley: The Occasional Activist
Trump's U.N. ambassador promised to promote human rights. Then politics got in the way.
“I will never shy away from calling out other countries for actions taken in conflict with U.S. values and in violation of human rights and international norms,” Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor-turned-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, assured senators during her January 2017 confirmation hearing. It was a remark primed to set her apart from the new U.S. president and the rest of his administration, who have seemed more inclined to cut deals with the world’s autocrats than to lecture them for mistreating their people.
Haley has used her current job to make the defense of human rights part of her political identity. She has denounced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a coldblooded “war criminal,” warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin could never be a “credible partner” of the United States, organized U.N. Security Council sessions on human rights, and traveled to refugee camps to draw attention to civilian abuses. She has also strongly condemned the ongoing atrocities in Myanmar.
Yet critics say Haley, like many of her predecessors, is often inconsistent in her championing of human rights, and her strident “America First” rhetoric has rankled her foreign counterparts. The picture that has emerged is of a sometime crusader: one who seems to believe in the power of America’s moral voice, even in the era of Donald Trump, but who cannot be consistently relied on to use it.
When Haley is acting as a human rights advocate, she occupies a space the rest of the U.S. leadership has all but abandoned. Take what happened in September 2017. Saudi Arabia was fighting off a diplomatic offensive at the U.N. Human Rights Council led by the Netherlands, which wanted to establish an open-ended commission of inquiry probing atrocities in Yemen by the Saudi-led military coalition and the Houthi insurgents. David Satterfield, the acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, was reluctant to support the Dutch initiative, fearing American backing would chill U.S. relations with Riyadh. The Defense Department also opposed an open-ended investigation since the United States provides targeting advice to pilots in the Saudi-led coalition and refuels the bombers responsible for the majority of atrocities committed during the war.
Haley was the sole high-ranking U.S. official to recommend that the country vote in favor of the commission of inquiry; in the end, a compromise preempted a vote.
But her advocacy has been viewed as self-serving. After anti-government protests erupted in Iran in early January, Haley convened an emergency session of the Security Council to address the regime’s attacks on peaceful demonstrators.
Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, accused Washington of insincerity, and even France’s U.N. ambassador, François Delattre, told the council, “It is up to the Iranians, and to the Iranians alone, to pursue the path of peaceful dialogue.”
Yet Haley has been credited for drawing attention to abuses in parts of the world that the Trump administration has otherwise overlooked. In October, she was moved to tears when she visited camps for refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. Haley took a series of photos and presented them to South Sudan’s leader, Salva Kiir, warning that his government risked losing further U.S. aid if he did not allow humanitarian assistance into his country. When she came back from Africa, she was “eloquent in defense of the need to take care of the most vulnerable and the victims of these wars,” says Akshaya Kumar, the deputy U.N. director for Human Rights Watch.
Advocates say that while they appreciate Haley’s stance on such issues, they believe her positions are sometimes calculated to promote the White House’s goals, enhance her own political fortunes, and protect key allies, most notably Israel.
Haley has repeatedly threatened to pull the United States out of the Human Rights Council unless it changes its treatment of Israel. She’s not the first to call out the council for its bias against the country. But her Democratic predecessors — Samantha Power and Susan Rice — never threatened to abandon it.
“U.S. foreign policy has always had an element of selectivity, but with Haley the mask has dropped,” Kumar says.
That said, she adds, “on issues not featuring in conversations in the White House, she seems to be driven by a visceral human reaction to tragedy.”
The problems arise when the two impulses come into tension. Early in her tenure, Haley positioned herself as a champion of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), a humanitarian agency that serves millions of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Haley initially defended the agency against attacks from the U.S. Congress and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Privately, she assured her counterparts at the U.N. that she was working to ensure that the more than $350 million in funding the United States provided UNRWA each year would continue.
That changed in December, however, after Palestinian leaders pushed for resolutions in the Security Council and General Assembly denouncing a decision by Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Haley saw the votes as an insult to the United States and spearheaded a campaign to withhold some $65 million in U.S. aid earmarked for food, schooling, and health care to Palestinian refugees.
That move was a break from a long-standing bipartisan American tradition that dictated humanitarian aid should never be withheld because of politics. Haley’s stance has since hardened further on providing assistance to the neediest nations, and she is now proposing penalizing other poor aid recipients that defy the United States.
Haley did not hide the fact that she pushed for aid cuts to the Palestinians because their leaders had both denounced Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem and rebuffed Washington’s appeals to participate in U.S.-mediated peace talks.
“The United States will remember this day in which it was singled out for attack,” she warned the General Assembly in December. “We will remember it when so many countries come calling on us, as they so often do, to pay even more and to use our influence for their benefit.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.