“A Place for Conscience: the Future of the United States in the Human Rights Council”- Nikki Haley’s speech at the Graduate Institute


Last Tuesday, Nikki Haley, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, gave a speech at the Graduate Institute in Geneva to discuss the country’s position regarding the Human Rights Council (HRC) and its stance on the importance of human rights. Although a withdrawal from the HRC was refuted, the Ambassador to the UN presented a very grim picture of the latter, insisting that structural changes must be made.


The CIPADH reports the main arguments that were made.


Nikki Haley referred to Eleanor Roosevelt, the first chair of the HRC back in 1947, at the start of her speech as an emblematic female figure who fought for the “good battle” of human rights in the midst of the Cold War. She used this example as a device not only to denounce the politicization of human rights but also to indirectly criticize the position of Russia, the Soviet Union at the time. This set the tone for her critical speech of the HRC.


“The Human Rights Council has failed”


Before virulently criticizing the role played by the Human Rights Commission, the institution prior to the HRC, N. Haley reasserted the US’s christian pillar as she claimed: ”Of course America did not invent these {human}  rights – God did.” She then argued that the politics involved in the HRC  “had stained and setback the cause of human rights” and led to its “credibility deficit”.  She painted the Commission and, by extension the HRC, as an utter failure synonymous with a “forum for politics, hypocrisy, and evasion”.

Ms. Halley did not fail to point the finger to certain countries, especially Venezuela, and argued that the  “HRC never condemned abuses”. As a result, she urged the HRC to “take action” to denounce and “condemn” certain countries such as “Venezuela, Cuba, China, Burundi, and Saudi Arabia” for their violations of human rights. However, her virulent criticism about the lack of action only came with an urge to “talk about human rights”, to “be loud” about such issues; rather than proposing tangible steps to alter human rights records of countries, Ms Haleyargued that making a country feel “ashamed” will necessarily lead to action.


The future of the US in the HRC


To the question “what is the future of the United States in the Human Rights Council?”, Nikki Haley made it clear: the US will not leave the HRC but will seek to reestablish its legitimacy. In that purpose, the ambassador pointed out two necessary changes.

First, the procedure for the election for membership to the Council must be changed. Indeed, the ambassador underlines that States’ elections to the Council should be only based on the candidate's’ human rights records to avoid human rights violators. Moreover, the selection of members must occur with an open voting and not with a secret ballot in order to know which state is willing to support human rights violators as member to the Council and thus to increase transparency.

Second, the Ambassador pointed out the Item 7 of the Council’s Agenda called “Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories”.  For her, this Item must be removed since it is a “scandalous provision that singles out Israel for automatic criticism”. She claimed that “The Council has passed more than 70 resolutions targeting Israel and just seven on Iran although Israel has actually a strong human rights record”... In her opinion, targeting Israel is a shame for the Council, especifically the database made by the HRC to designate the companies that are doing business in Israeli controlled areas.  The ambassador emphasizes that this practice is contrary to the laws of international trade and it is an “ attempt to provide an international stamp of approval to the anti-Semitic BDS movement”. She wishes that Israel would not have a specific treatment and would be placed on equal footing with other countries. The ambassador underlines that there is not legitimate justification for the Council to have a separate agenda item on Israel but it would be more appropriate to have an agenda on North Korea, Iran, and Syria, the world’s leading violators of human rights. The idea of removing an Item targeting one country is in itself moot. However, replacing it with another country is contradictory - even more when the countries listed by Nikki Halley are the US “enemies”. These two solutions proposed by Nikki Halley must also be complemented by a political change. Indeed, politics should not be put ahead of human rights. It should be the opposite. In conclusion, the United States, for now, will stay in the Human Rights Council so long as structural changes are implemented.


The audience’s reaction


After Nikki Haley’s speech, some questions were asked by the audience. How can the US criticize countries such as Iran or Venezuela for their lack of democracy and human rights record and still have very good relations with Saudi Arabia ? How can the US use their influence in the HRC to find solution for countries in crisis such as Phillipines or Egypt? How can we make effectively a more active Council ? How is it possible to state that the US will always fight for human rights and make the Council better regarding to Trump’s administration ? Is Trump program not completely in opposition with the ambassador’s speech ? Should not the US be more respectful with human rights in his own country ? (Examples: mexican immigrants, syrian refugees, guantanamo bay …)


The questions were very sensitive and the answers pointed out some inconsistencies with the Trump Administration’s policies so far. For instance, when asked about Saudi Arabia, Ms. Haley said “I will continue to call out Saudi Arabia,” and that the “the administration is allowing me to say it”. Interestingly, Trump recently backed the Saudi government and favored Riyadh’s decision to sever diplomatic relations with Qatar. In fact, the rhetoric of Ms. Haley seemed, at times, in sharp contrast with the Trump administration.