The Geneva Shuffle: Shifting U.S. Engagement at the UN Human Rights Council

The Geneva Shuffle: Shifting U.S. Engagement at the UN Human Rights Council
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Ted Piccone and Jesse Kornbluth

After a mandatory yearlong hiatus in 2016, the United States has returned to Geneva as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), but with a much more critical eye. With some fanfare in June, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley laid down three clear conditions for continued U.S. engagement of the world’s top human rights body: improving elections and membership, removing the permanent agenda item on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), and streamlining Council processes to focus more on country-specific issues. While Haley left open the precise timing of a threatened departure from the UNHRC, the body’s upcoming session starting September 11, and the next round of membership elections in October, will be important tests for the Trump administration’s push for reform.


Up first on Haley’s agenda is membership reform. Haley makes a well-meaning case that the UN General Assembly’s regular election of several gross human rights violators undermines the legitimacy of the Council as the UN’s principal body for monitoring human rights abuses. According to Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom Index, 24 of the Council’s 47 current members are considered to be “free”; another 13 member states are listed as “partly free,” and ten receive the lowest possible rating of “not free.” This composition compares favorably to 2016’s membership of 19 “free” member states, 16 “partly free,” and 12 “not free.”

Critics of the UNHRC nonetheless argue that a UN body with a substantial minority of human rights abusers and spoilers can hardly live up to its mandate to monitor and promote human rights around the world. While not without merit, this claim does not carry much water in practice. The UNHRC’s imperfect membership has not prevented it from taking important action on a range of critical human rights crises, from Iran and Libya to Syria and Burundi. And when the Council acts with consensus, as it did earlier this year on North Korea, its decisions carry even more weight. But it does mean the United States and its allies need to work harder to get the results it wants, a tall order given diminished capacities at the State Department.

Fixing the UN General Assembly’s rules for electing members to the Council won’t be easy. In too many cases, states make backdoor deals to swap votes, or regional blocs arrange uncontested clean slates, making elections a fait accompli. When regional slates are competitive, elections often have led to better membership, and in turn, a more effective and politically legitimate Council. This fall’s lineup, which includes such bad actors as Pakistan, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are outweighed by several strong candidates from Latin America and Eastern Europe. In addition to recruiting strong candidates to run this fall and next, the United States should press the case for suspension of sitting members like Burundi and Venezuela, which clearly violate the Council’s membership criteria (e.g., committing gross and systemic violations and failing to cooperate with the Council).

Treatment of Israel

The United States on a bipartisan basis has long opposed the Council’s biased treatment of Israel, which continues to be singled out with a permanent agenda item (Item 7) on the “Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied territories.” All other country-specific human rights issues are heard under agenda item 4, “Human rights situations that require the body’s attention.” An official State Department press release issued in March declared: “The continued existence of this agenda item is among the largest threats to the credibility of the Council.” In addition to symbolic actions such as not attending the annual debates on Israel/OPT and voting against relevant resolutions, Haley seems determined to persuade key states to support terminating Item 7 and moving Israel/OPT to Item 4. This is a reasonable goal but progress will require high-level lobbying by State and the White House of influential Arab and Islamic states, a proposition other administrations have not seriously pursued. And let’s not forget that Item 7 came about in the first place because of bad bargaining during the U.S. (self-imposed) absence from the Council at its inception in 2006. Stepping away from the Human Rights Council again would effectively leave Israel out to dry.

Streamlining Council processes

A common criticism of the Council is its uneven focus on long thematic debates, in lieu of addressing country-specific human rights issues, which the United States views as the core product of the Council. A 2016 Brookings report notes, however, an upward trend in time and resources directed to country-level abuses. The report also found that, while a disproportionate bias towards Israel persists, a wider array of states are coming under Council scrutiny, including through its universal periodic review mechanism, which covers all UN member states. This positive trend underscores the universality of the international human rights system and helps human rights defenders advance their campaigns at the local level. This is not to say that thematic debates do not matter. The United States and its allies need to continue defending existing norms and advance new ones, as it has done on issues of freedom of association, defamation of religions and LGBT rights.

While contemplating disengagement from the Council, the Trump administration is trying to use it as a vehicle for raising pressure on certain countries it deems unfriendly. At the UNHRC session in June, for example, Haley paid extra attention to the dire human rights abuses perpetrated by a fellow Council member, Venezuela, a move strongly supported by her close ally in the Senate, Marco Rubio. In her lone day spent at the Council in Geneva, she led a U.S.-sponsored side evert on the “rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in Venezuela.” She also mentioned Venezuela no fewer than ten times between her official statement at the Council and speech at the Geneva Graduate Institute. In contrast, perennial human rights abusers Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Syria were mentioned a total of ten times, combined.

Singling out Venezuela also illuminates and strengthens Haley’s case for better membership. If Venezuela has become such an egregious human rights abuser, how can it possibly be allowed a seat at the Council? At the September session, however, it looks unlikely that the U.S. delegation will lead the charge to condemn Venezuela, preferring to find regional allies to spearhead the effort.

Rhetoric versus reality

While Haley’s tough talk on Council reform is a far cry from the more collaborative tone of previous Democratic administrations, U.S. voting patterns have remained relatively similar. The United States this year has already sponsored or co-sponsored seven Council resolutions, on par with recent years of the Obama administration. Between the HRC sessions of 2015 and 2017, the U.S. delegation voted differently on the same resolution in only two cases. It broke consensus on the Cuba-sponsored Right to Food resolution for the first time since 2009, the sole vote against the resolution, highlighting an “unfair focus on pesticides.” This probably signals both a newfound reluctance to work with traditional adversaries (Cuba in this case) and a greater willingness to vote with corporate interests in mind (pesticide manufacturers).

The other break from recent precedent came on the U.S. vote against a resolution sponsored by the Non-Aligned Movement on Enhancement of International Cooperation in the Field of Human Rights. Previously, the U.S. delegation praised the resolution as “affirming the obligations undertaken by states with respect to implementation of human rights treaties they have ratified.” In 2017, however, the United States voted against the resolution, offering a brief explanation based on the resolution’s “controversial declaration” alluding to greater South-South (in addition to North-South) multilateral cooperation. The U.S. statement also took a swipe at the perennially contested concept of “right to development,” elaborating on this in a separate, more extensive explanation in regards to a related China-sponsored resolution.

The right to development and China

In a sign of rising self-confidence, China sponsored at the June session its first ever Human Rights Council resolution, “The contribution of development to the enjoyment of human rights.” Venezuela and Iran had sponsored similar resolutions on the right to development at previous session. The United States voted against all three resolutions.

China broadcast its resolution as a disruption to Western hegemony on human rights globally and a recognition of its own model of prioritizing economic and social rights over political and civil rights. The official U.S. explanation of vote asserts that while the United States supports the role of development in ensuring human rights, “we reject any suggestion that development goals could permit countries to deviate from their human rights obligations…” It also complained that the resolution selectively omits and alters key phrasing (specifically, the word “democracy”) from the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.

Behind a newly empowered President Xi Jinping, China has become more aggressive in challenging international norms, particularly regarding its alleged rights in the South China Sea. A recent China Communist party paper, the National Human Rights Action Plan (2016-2020), suggests that China is looking to take a stronger position in the human rights arena as well. The paper states that “the cause of socialist human rights with Chinese characteristics has moved up to a new level,” and promises that China will become more “actively involved in the work of the UN human rights mechanism; conduct extensive human rights dialogues, exchanges and cooperation, and provide technical aid related to human rights to those developing countries that need it.”

Meanwhile at the Security Council, Haley needs China’s cooperation to curb the threat from North Korea, including imposition of new sanctions for Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests. In this context, human rights has become another argument for undermining the legitimacy of the Kim regime. Just two years ago, China joined Cuba, Russia, Venezuela, and Vietnam in voting against a UNHRC resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights violations that passed 27-6-14. On the same resolution in 2017, China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela all voted In Favor (Russia and Vietnam are not currently on the Council). Nor did China object to putting North Korea’s human rights record on the Security Council’s agenda after a UNHRC commission of inquiry presented strong evidence of the regime’s crimes against humanity.

What to watch for at the Council’s September session

As a rudderless and under-staffed State Department prepares for the next Council session, it faces some difficult tradeoffs between its traditional pro-human rights leadership role in Geneva and President Trump’s defense of some of the world’s most egregious human rights abusers. A bellwether for this dilemma is Yemen, where U.S. ally Saudi Arabia has led aggressive military strikes against Houthi rebels with grave consequences for Yemeni civilians. Competing resolutions from The Netherlands, which condemns the Saudi actions in Yemen and mandates an independent international investigation, and Egypt, on behalf of the Arab Group, are likely to result in stalemate unless the United States can effectively navigate an outcome that includes an independent fact-finding mechanism taken seriously by all sides.

Another country debate that has important implications for the future of U.S. policy toward the Council is the human rights crisis in Burundi. Burundi, which currently sits on the Council, continues to rebuff requests for cooperation from UN monitors dispatched by the Council to investigate the deteriorating human rights situation on the ground. This month, the experts body released a report concluding that there are “reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed and continue to be committed in Burundi since April 2015.” Burundi’s shameful behavior squarely meets the criteria for suspension as a member of the Council, a reproach that has not been utilized since the UN General Assembly kicked Libya off the body in 2011. This presents an obvious opportunity for the United States to lead an effort in Geneva and in New York to persuade members to remove Burundi until it cleans up its record and cooperates with the Council. This would be an important early victory for Haley’s campaign for improved credibility of the UN’s human rights system.

It would help if UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres would lend some weight to Haley’s calls for reforming the UN’s human rights system. But to date, Guterres’ priority focus on conflict resolution has made little room for human rights, despite the obvious linkages between rights violations and conflict, a point Haley underscored during the U.S. chairmanship of the Security Council last April. Guterres, who has received early criticism for neglecting to weave human rights into his agenda for strengthening the efficacy of the UN, could have much to gain by helping Haley co-pilot an agenda more heavily focused on human rights.

In the past, Haley herself has squared off with President Trump on a number of issues. Haley supported Marco Rubio’s candidacy before Trump’s primary victory, publicly denounced President Trump’s first attempt at an immigration ban, and questioned his position on NATO. She has routinely demonstrated that she will act independently in her approach to U.S. – UN relations and, increasingly, in speaking out on human rights when other Cabinet officials fail to do so. At a July Senate hearing, for example, she called out several perennial human rights abusers who sit on the Human Rights Council, including U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia. Haley may still be learning the dance, but she is adding a few of her own steps to the Geneva shuffle.

While the Haley approach to UNHRC reform may be ambitious, it is achievable if she has the diplomatic muscle to back her up. But with no head of mission in Geneva, no intention to appoint a special ambassador to the Council (Obama’s appointees, Eileen Donahoe and Keith Harper, played critical roles in leading U.S. diplomacy there), the early retirement of career diplomat Tracey Ann Jacobson from the top ranks of UN experts at State, threatened U.S. budget cuts to the UN’s human rights office, and a demoralized staff at Foggy Bottom, it is hard to see how Team USA is going to pull it off. The U.S. threat to walk away from the Council may have put other members on notice that it’s their turn to step up to fill the void left by U.S. retrenchment, lest it be filled by such spoilers as Egypt, China, Russia and Cuba. But only time will tell if they have the will and resources to carry it off.

Ted Piccone is a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, where he holds the Charles W. Robinson Chair.

Jesse Kornbluth is a research intern with the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution and a recent graduate of the University of Miami’s graduate program in international administration.

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