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U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks in the U.N. Security Council at U.N. headquarters in New York City, U.S., February 28, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

Shortly after arriving in New York as Donald Trump’s representative to the United Nations, Nikki Haley said she would be “taking names” of those who stood in her way. Most assumed she was referring to governments that blocked U.S. initiatives at the United Nations Security Council. Recently, however, she has started attacking Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Speaking at the Heritage Foundation last week, she said that by opposing her reform agenda for the U.N. Human Rights Council, we had “sided with Russia and China.”  

Government hostility is an occupational hazard of human rights work. No one likes having their abuses investigated and exposed, or the resulting pressure for change. After Human Rights Watch revealed Rwanda’s use of torture, for example, the government called us “desperate for attention.” When we described the Venezuelan government’s corruption-fueled repression, it claimed we were “an ideological weapon of the North American empire.” Some years ago, as we described Beijing’s crushing of independent voices, a Chinese government spokesperson colorfully suggested, “Their eyesight has always had problems. ... Maybe they are wearing tinted glasses, or only squinting.”

Successive U.S. administrations never have been immune from our scrutiny. We have challenged, for example, CIA torture and arbitrary detention, U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia as it bombs starving Yemeni civilians, and continued U.S. security assistance to Egypt as the government crushes any semblance of democracy. Within the United States, we’ve addressed a range of human rights problems, from mass incarceration to the treatment of migrants in detention.

Senior U.S. government officials periodically have disagreed with us, but it was a first to see us accused of siding with Russia and China — even as Presidents Trump and Putin were embracing in Helsinki. Nor can we remember a U.S. government official ever suggesting that we would lose access to them because of our criticism, as Haley also did.  

So what accounted for Haley’s vitriol? The Trump administration’s primary reason for leaving the Human Rights Council was its criticism of Israel. But because the Trump administration routinely opposes any criticism of Israel’s human rights violations, few applauded its move, given that the council inevitably will criticize Israel for its rights violations.

The U.S. government also criticized the composition of the council, because some abusive countries have managed to secure membership in a cynical effort to block council action. The council was designed a decade ago to discourage such members by requiring the U.N. General Assembly to vote on slates of candidates from each of the world’s five regions. When that competitive process works, some abusive governments have failed in their quest to join the council — most recently Russia, which lost a competitive election in October 2016 as it was bombing Eastern Aleppo in Syria.

However, several regions have circumvented the competitive process by proposing only the same number of candidates as open seats. One traditional offender is the Western group, of which the United States is a part, which left the U.S. government hard-pressed to discourage other regions from doing the same.

Despite this gaming of the electoral system, enough governments with a commitment to human rights have secured seats on the council that it has managed to open investigations, issue condemnations and generate pressure for many of the world’s most urgent situations, such as Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan and Burundi. Yet for the Trump administration’s one-dimensional human rights policy, none of that mattered as much as defending Israel.

Few human rights advocates quarrel with the aim of improving the council. The question is how. The problem is that just as many governments want to enhance the council’s effectiveness, others want to undermine it. A reform process under way in Geneva, where the council sits, proceeds by consensus, meaning that advances are difficult but major setbacks can be avoided.

Because that process was unlikely to remove an agenda item concerning the Israeli-occupied territories that was one basis for the U.S. complaint, the Trump administration preferred a more open-ended but riskier process at the U.N. General Assembly where the possibility of debilitating “reforms” was quite real. No other country joined the U.S. proposal. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International opposed it, leading to Haley’s denunciation.

While defending Israel was the dominant motive for U.S. withdrawal, other factors may have influenced the timing. Haley announced the decision to quit the same week that the U.N. high commissioner for human rights called the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant families at the southern U.S. border “unconscionable,” and just as a U.N. special rapporteur was about to present a report on extreme poverty in America.

That timing suggests a larger problem with U.S. withdrawal from the council. Many Americans falsely believe that human rights protect only other people, as opposed to constitutional or civil rights, which protect Americans. But the withdrawal from the Human Rights Council reflects the Trump administration’s broader rejection of all rights constraints on its actions. The administration’s vendetta against the international human rights system, ironically, could end up reaffirming for Americans how important “human rights” are for them, too.  

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