U.S. Voice Is Needed in Human Rights Discussion

U.S. Voice Is Needed in Human Rights Discussion
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
U.S. Voice Is Needed in Human Rights Discussion
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
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In past administrations, the announcement that the United States has withdrawn from the U.N. Human Rights Council would have merited vivid and sustained debate. But the Trump administration’s confrontations with the U.S.-led global order and the institutions that buttress it have been relentless, so the reaction was muted resignation, rather than outrage.

Yet the debate is worth having, because the definition and implementation of human rights policy frames the growing competition between democracies and their ascendant authoritarian competitors. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley showed why when she spoke to the conservative Heritage Foundation on July 18. Haley presented the decision to leave the human rights council as a pivot toward a principled conservative approach to human rights.

“No one should make the mistake of equating membership in the Human Rights Council with the support for human rights,” she said. “To this day, the United States does more for human rights, both inside the U.N. and around the world, than any other country. And we will continue to do that. We just won’t do it inside a council that consistently fails the cause of human rights.”

The approach hinted at by Haley and amplified in later remarks by State Department officials would shift legitimacy and initiative in human rights legislation back to democratic capitals. In part it takes its cue from the Trump administration’s renewed focus on great-power competition, seeing human rights as the part of the tool kit that committed democracies exclusively carry.

The Hypocrisy Question

There was good reason in 2009 for the Obama administration to join the UNHRC, which reversed the stance of his predecessor.  George W. Bush had declined to seek membership after the council replaced the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

Obama’s calculation was that, whatever the new body’s shortcomings, staying on the sidelines limited the United States’ influence and its ability to form a common front against human rights abuses. Yet the council is easy enough to disparage as an institution, and you could argue that the benefits of engaging it are rooted in theory more than the council’s practice. Detractors’ laundry list of criticisms is easily assembled: It starts with the council’s membership -- 47 nations drawn from regional groups and serving three-year terms. The arrangement allows nations that regularly insult the very notion of human rights to serve on the council. They shield blatant violators as they pursue their own political agendas.

The most specific U.S. objection is the treatment of Israel. The only country-specific permanent agenda item -- meaning the issue must be debated at every session -- is Item 7, dedicated to the “human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories.”

As Haley said at the Heritage event, the permanence of this item, paired with the absence of like processes lodged against clear-cut human rights abusers such as Russia or Zimbabwe, threatens to empty the concept of human rights of any practical and moral meaning and turns it into just another political cudgel for autocrats and petty tyrants.

This is not a new argument, although Haley upped the ante by referring to the Human Rights Council as “the United Nations’ greatest failure.” She insisted that Washington is not turning its back on human rights by shunning the council. “America can no more abandon the cause of human rights than abandon herself,” she said in a line designed to tie her administration with a legacy running from Eleanor Roosevelt to Jeane Kirkpatrick.

The cited legacy sees the link between human rights and democracy as explicit and mutually reinforcing. The one gives legitimacy to the other: Without respect for rights there is no democracy, and there is no legitimacy in a human rights forum populated by non-democratic entities. Human rights are a part of who we are. So this approach is idealistic, while the counterargument is more pragmatic – you can obtain real results if you engage unsavory regimes where their interests aren’t interrupted by our values.

But what would a retooled U.S. human rights policy look like? If we take Haley and her fellow conservatives at their word, it could mean more aggressive unilateral pursuit of human rights violators based on Washington’s own mechanisms, such as the Department of State’s Human Rights Report and the Magnitsky Act. If human rights are seen as the province of the democratic world, then turning up the volume in multilateral democratic clubs such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe could be a counterweight to the compromised forum hosted by the United Nations. Haley asserted in her speech that pro-human rights advocates agree with her criticisms privately, but have lacked the courage to make a stand.

The NGOs, and the countries, she referenced disagree on several fronts about the effectiveness of the UNHRC, and the value of keeping an American voice in the forum. But at the very least, the idea of reorienting human rights policy toward the club of democracies and willing partners has merit -- especially at a time of upheaval within those very democracies, when questions of human rights are dramatically impacting politics. Human rights norms both accepted and aspirational are challenged now by the arrival and treatment of immigrants and refugees on both sides of the Atlantic, but that challenge promises to branch out.

The British political class, thrashing for two years now against the shoals of an ideological journey into the unknown, threatens to deliver up a prime minister fully in the hold of a far-left that has blurred the line between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. Populist forces on both left and right reflect a democratic world questioning the basic norms that underwrite, among other things, our identities as defenders and custodians of basic human rights, within our borders and beyond. Democracies need to talk to each other about these values, perhaps more than they need to be exporting them elsewhere. If we’re going to have an impact in South Sudan, for instance, maybe we should first agree on how to handle what goes on in Italy -- or at the U.S.-Mexico border. An American voice is crucial to the conversations needed to give global democracies a firm hand in human rights policy, and the forums and focus chosen are a matter of valid debate.

The problem for those seeking reassurance that the United States is simply recalibrating, not abandoning, human rights as a signpost of foreign policy was what happened as Washington struggled to manage the fallout of a summit in Helsinki.

If promotion of rights is written into the DNA of U.S. foreign policy, and into all democracies’ broader engagement with the world, then its role is not limited to any certain forum -- it is what gives institutions like NATO and the European Union their animating pulse. It becomes difficult to credibly defend any human rights policy while undermining with words or with actions global democracy’s most consequential institutions. It pushes other democracies to seek other forms of comity with global actors, and it undercuts U.S. power directly by tying it to adversaries whose actions are as malign as their geopolitical postures are fundamentally weak.

Look at the policies, not the man, say defenders of the president, and that argument has doubtless validity. But it also has limits, too. And the feeling, when listening to key administration figures in Washington lay out policy desires directly undercut by their boss’s words, is that the tension between the two must eventually break. Power is the only hard currency in international politics, but good credit depends on credibility.  

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