In Parting Shot, Nikki Haley Shuns Human Rights Groups at UN

During her nearly two-year stint as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley sought to cultivate a reputation as a human rights champion, speaking out forcefully about atrocities from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Myanmar to South Sudan.

But as she prepares to leave government, Haley’s team has made a point of shunning the most prominent human rights organizations, following a bitter fight over her failed efforts to transform the U.N. Human Rights Council.

This month, Haley’s deputy, Kelley Currie, the U.S. ambassador for the U.N. Economic and Social Council, sent out an invitation to private groups to attend a briefing Friday on the U.S. plans before the U.N. General Assembly’s Third Committee, which deals with human rights and other humanitarian issues.

Several key human rights groups that had been invited to a similar meeting last year, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, did not receive an invitation.

The snub comes months after Haley clashed with human rights groups over their opposition to a U.S. proposal to reform the Human Rights Council. Haley sought support from key allies for the passage of the measure, which aimed to end excessive scrutiny of Israel’s human rights record before the 47-member council and to prevent countries with poor human rights records from election to the council.

Human rights advocates said they agreed with some of Haley’s objectives but feared that a move to renegotiate the terms of the rights council’s charter through a General Assembly resolution would backfire, providing countries with abysmal rights records an opportunity to demand their own charter amendments that might hinder efforts to hold countries accountable for crimes. The best way to bring about change was through negotiations with the council’s 46 other member states—an option the United States claims it tried without success.

In May, 18 human rights groups wrote a letter urging states to oppose the U.S. initiative. Shortly after, a coalition of so-called like-minded countries that generally side with the United States on human rights matters made clear in a pair of private meetings with U.S. officials that they would not support Washington.

Many of the rights organizations that signed the letter have not received invitations to Friday’s meeting.

The U.S. Mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.

“We have not been invited so far, and, as far as I am aware, several others who were opposing so-called reforms of the Human Rights Council are also not invited,” said Louis Charbonneau, Human Rights Watch’s U.N. director.

“It seems that Haley is adopting an approach typical of authoritarian governments,” Charbonneau added. “Play ball with us and be nice and you’ll have access. If you don’t, you are going to be shut out.”

Unable to muster sufficient support for its resolution back in June, the United States ultimately abandoned its effort to reform the Human Rights Council and announced the decision to withdraw. Haley blamed the rights groups for forcing her hand.

“It is unfortunate that your letter sought to undermine our attempts to improve the Human Rights Council,” Haley wrote in a June 20 letter to those rights groups. “You put yourself on the side of Russia and China, and opposite the United States, on a key human rights issue.”

“You should know that your efforts to block negotiations and thwart reform were a contributing factor in the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Council,” she added. “Going forward, we encourage you to play a constructive role on behalf of human rights, rather than the deconstructive one you played in this instance.”

The Human Rights Council was set up in 2006, replacing the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which faced criticism for electing members with abysmal rights records and signaling out Israel for disproportionate scrutiny. John Bolton, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time, helped persuade President George W. Bush not to join the council.

President Barack Obama changed course and joined the council months after taking office. The Obama administration maintained that it would be more effective in shaping the council’s work, and protecting Israel, if it were a member of the rights council.

President Donald Trump and Haley made clear in 2017 that the council’s would have to undertake a number of reforms in order to persuade the United States from leaving. One demand was the elimination of Agenda Item 7, a special category addressing rights violations in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. No other country is singled out with its own agenda item.

In announcing U.S. plans to withdraw from the rights council, Haley said a yearlong effort to secure reforms had fallen short.

“For too long, the Human Rights Council has been a protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias,” Haley said. “Almost every country we met with agrees with us in principle and behind closed doors that the Human Rights Council needs major, dramatic, systemic changes, yet no other country has had the courage to join our fight.”

Critics of the rights council said an upcoming vote on a new slate of candidates proves the administration’s case. On Friday, four countries with terrible human rights records—Bahrain, Cameroon, Eritrea, and the Philippines—are expected to become new members. “They always elect tyranny,” said Hillel Neuer, the executive director of the Geneva-based U.N. Watch. “It’s a feature, not a bug.”

But others say that despite its shortcomings, the council has continued to do important work, investigating mass atrocities in Burundi, North Korea, Syria, and Yemen.

In the months since the United States withdrew, the council has adopted its first-ever resolution criticizing Venezuela’s human rights record, reauthorized an investigation into atrocities in Yemen, and established a team to collect evidence of possible crimes against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

But the irony doesn’t stop there, said another human rights advocate who was also left off the invitation list. The United States, the advocate said, has been planning to introduce a “resolution on freedom of association at the Third Committee. … Yet they won’t associate with us.”

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