On June 6, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will appear for the first time at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. The United States is one of 47 members of the council — a hard fought privilege — but the Trump administration is contemplating pulling out. Haley is unlikely to shut the door on the council during her brief visit, but an assessment process underway could lead to that outcome.
The administration has two main complaints about the council: that it focuses disproportionately (and negatively) on Israel, and that it has too many abusive governments among its members. There is some merit in both complaints, but neither is a reason to abandon the council’s important work.
The council is the U.N.’s foremost political body devoted exclusively to human rights. As with any political body, its member countries often allow politics to infect voting, resulting in council actions that are sometimes selective and, well, partisan. Still, the majority of members engage with the council in good faith to address serious human-rights concerns, and in the end get a lot done. In recent years, it has taken the lead in investigating, reporting on, and condemning atrocities in North Korea, Syria, South Sudan, and Myanmar, to name just a few. Often it is able to act when the U.N. Security Council cannot, because there is no veto at the Human Rights Council. Majority vote prevails.
It is anomalous that the council’s sole regular agenda item devoted to a single location is its “Item 7,” concerning Israel’s conduct in the occupied Palestinian territories. Yet criticism of Israel represents a tiny fraction of the council’s overall work. As a member of the council, the U.S. government can fight to abolish Item 7. Human rights concerns about Israel can still be addressed under other agenda items, as are those involving other governments. But U.S. departure from the council would be the surest way to guarantee that an excessive focus on Israel continues or even intensifies.
People concerned about the council’s treatment of Israel know this, which is why many are reluctant for the United States to leave the council. But given the inevitable criticism of a country entering its 50th year of military occupation, some would rather delegitimize the council, which they calculate a U.S. withdrawal would do. Yet such a calculation means that a single issue would hijack the full range of U.S. human rights initiatives at the council. The dictatorships of the world would celebrate if such a one-dimensional foreign policy were to prevail in Washington.
As for the Human Rights Council’s membership, the Trump administration is correct that it is suboptimal. Like all U.N. bodies, it must draw from the member states of the United Nations, and too many of them are serious human-rights abusers. To make matters worse, some abusive governments try to join the council in the hope of protecting themselves and their kind from condemnation. It doesn’t always work — the council just opened a commission of inquiry to address atrocities in Burundi, a member — but the body’s checkered membership does tarnish its reputation.
When the council was created a decade ago, the U.N. General Assembly underlined the importance of council members upholding the highest standards of human rights. It thus put in place open elections for membership and even provided for the removal of members who are serious rights violators. Seats were allocated to each of the U.N.’s five regions; the General Assembly, which is responsible for upholding its membership criteria (not the council itself), voted on the options.
In the council’s early years, the system, while imperfect, worked. Each year, human rights groups targeted the most inappropriate candidate, and each year it was defeated from joining, either in a vote (Belarus, Azerbaijan, Sri Lanka) or by withdrawing its candidacy rather than face a humiliating loss (Syria, Iraq).
Unfortunately, governments figured out a way to circumvent these elections: In many regions, after private consultations, only the exact number of candidates as there were open seats presented themselves, subverting an open and competitive process. There were exceptions, such as last year’s competitive slate for Eastern Europe’s seats that enabled human rights groups to question Russia’s candidacy. Moscow was defeated by two votes while it was taking part in the ruthless bombing of eastern Aleppo. But more common has been the “closed” or uncompetitive slates that have given seats on the council to the likes of Burundi, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, all current members.
The single best way for the United States to improve the council’s membership would be to speak out against non-competitive slates of candidates. At minimum, regions should be publicly shamed when they don’t present a fair choice. Even when a region conspires to put forward only a non-competitive slate, the United States can encourage democratic governments from the region to add their own candidacies to create a competitive slate. There is no way, for example, that Venezuela — currently facing condemnation by the Organization of American States — could prevail in a competitive election today. Similarly, Egypt and Saudi Arabia finished last in October on their uncompetitive slates for the Africa and Asia seats on the council, suggesting they would have been vulnerable to competition.
It’s worth noting that Western governments have sometimes put forward uncompetitive slates as well. They allegedly do it to avoid the politicking and horse-trading that otherwise might be required to get elected. But that’s a poor excuse when it emboldens abusive states to do the same.
Ensuring competitive elections is far better than undermining the Human Rights Council, since any replacement would have the same membership problem. Some Trump officials have suggested the U.N. Security Council as an alternative, but its membership includes plenty of rights violators as well. Moreover, allies of the veto-wielding permanent members, including Russia and China, would be exempt from scrutiny. That would hardly be a credible way to address universal human rights.
Yes, there is work to be done to improve the Human Rights Council. But as U.N. bodies go, it is one of the more effective. And its bite still has sting for many highly abusive governments. So as Ambassador Nikki Haley appears in Geneva, her guiding philosophy should be to fix it, not abandon it.