Trump to the Human Rights Council: 3 strikes and we’re out?

by Marc Limon, Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group and Geneva Beyond the Council, Blog, International human rights institutions, mechanisms and processes

As the Geneva diplomatic world prepares for the Human Rights Council’s 35th session, all the talk is of the much-anticipated visit of Nikki Haley, America’s ambassador to the UN. With a certain masochistic relish, diplomats wonder aloud whether President Trump’s senior multilateral envoy will show the Council a yellow card (giving it one last chance to ‘improve’ its behaviour), or a straight red.

In fact, when she does come riding into town early next week, she’s more likely to follow an American sporting analogy (baseball) than a footballing one, namely: ‘three strikes and you’re out.’ The expectation is that Ambassador Haley will use her speech to the Council to express the Trump administration’s displeasure at three key aspects of the body’s work, and to demand reform across each of those areas. In the absence of reform, she is expected to say, the US will pull out.

 What are those three areas?

First – and most important – the US is expected to demand the reorganisation of the Council’s agenda and, in particular, the deletion of agenda item 7. Under item 7, the Council addresses the human rights situation (human rights violations) in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Other situations of serious violations around the world are (nearly always) dealt with under item 4 – ‘situations that require the Council’s attention.’

In principle, the US is of course right to object to the presence, on the Council’s agenda, of a single agenda item solely dedicated to Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians. Notwithstanding the gravity of the situation in the OPT, it is wrong to suggest that the situation is so serious that it warrants it very own permanent agenda item. No other human rights situation is afforded this privilege – grave and systematic human rights violations in places such as North Korea, Syria, and Eritrea are all dealt with under item 4. What is more, the presence of item 7 does nothing to help the situation of people living in the OPT. Indeed, it can be argued it serves to weaken international pressure on Israel to improve the human rights situation in the Occupied Territories, by giving the US (and, more recently, also the UK) carte blanche to vote against all item 7 resolutions, irrespective of their merit.

In practice, however, removing item 7 from the agenda will not be easy. While Palestinian diplomats might privately agree that creating item 7 (in 2006-2007) was a strategic misstep, its very public deletion would be seen, especially in Palestine, as a major concession. What is perhaps more realistic is to informally agree with the Palestinians, and their supporters in the OIC, to, for example, move some item 7 resolutions to item 4 and to only hold an item 7 general debate once a year (instead of three times, as is currently the case).

A final point worth making regarding item 7 is that the only reason it is there in the first place, is because the US, under the presidency of George W. Bush, was disengaged from the Council (a decision later revered by President Obama). Because the US was not in the room during the negotiation of the Council’s institution building package (IBP), the-then President of the Council, Mexico’s Luis Alfonso de Alba, did not have the political ‘cover’ he needed to block the inclusion of item 7. Taking this argument one-step further, after the US re-engaged (under Obama), it was able to significantly reduce the number of resolutions passed under item 7. Clearly, therefore, for the US to now walk away again, due to something that they could easily have prevented in the first place, would be akin to ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water.’

The second reform or improvement that the US is expected to demand relates to the Council’s membership. Echoing the position of pro-Israeli NGOs, such as UN Watch, senior Trump officials have publicly questioned the presence, on the Council, of countries with – they allege – poor human rights records. Nikki Haley appears to have been referring to this situation when she labeled the Council as ‘corrupt.’

On the issue of improving the Council’s membership, the US may find the going easier than is likely to be the case with item 7. That is because the basic ‘rules of the game’ for Council elections and membership (as set by the General Assembly) are okay. The General Assembly made clear that when electing States to the Council, UN members should take into account those States’ human rights record, and that once elected, Council members should uphold the highest human rights standards. The issue is not, therefore, the rules or membership criteria – the issue is, rather, that States are not applying those rules correctly. Council elections (conducted according to regional groups) are often uncompetitive (so-called ‘clean slate elections’), with the same number of candidates as seats available. What is more, many States (almost 90), including many with relatively strong human rights records, have never stood for election, and, where they have, have lost because UN members tend to vote based on bilateral reciprocal deals rather than based on human rights considerations. All this could be changed, with a little effort.

The third and final – and relatively minor – issue is one of working methods and, linked to that, the Council’s credibility. According to a US reading of the Council, the body expends too much of its time and resources on long, repetitive thematic debates, and on dialogues with an ever increasing number of thematic Special Procedures mandate-holders, at the expense of what the US considers to be its ‘core business,’ namely addressing serious human rights violations around the world.


Feature photo: On her first day at the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley (back to camera), the new United States Permanent Representative to the UN, speaks to journalists before presenting her credentials to Secretary-General António Guterres (27 January 2017). UN Photo/Mark Garten, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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