If one were to enquire about the purpose of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the official answer would undoubtedly be that it is an intergovernmental institution comprised of 47 member states responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. If one were to pose the question to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki R. Haley, she would tell you that that oft-cited mission statement was in fact “a reversal of the truth that would make George Orwell blush.”
The Human Rights Council is not the only entity currently struggling with a reversal of the truth. On Tuesday, Ambassador Haley became the first permanent representative of the United States to the United Nations to address the body at its headquarters in Geneva. Within moments of Ambassador Haley concluding her remarks, numerous news sources were running headlines heralding Haley’s assertion that the United States would be leaving the Council. But Ambassador Haley made no such claim. She never even threatened that course of action.
In the midst of a foreign policy that has been fractious at best and indiscernible at worst, the cause of universal human rights has remained unflappably and unquestionably at the center. In April, The United States’ envoy to the U.N. dedicated the U.S. presidency of the Security Council to championing universal human rights. Tuesday, Haley reaffirmed the resolve the United States has exhibited to reform the United Nations and its extended bodies in a manner that is conducive to the protection and promotion of human rights.
No, it is not the United States that is turning its back on human rights. It is the Council dedicated to the preservation of the cause that is doing just that.
As Ambassador Haley noted, states known to perpetrate atrocities and blatant human rights violations currently occupy seats on the Human Rights Council.
Venezuela, a state whose government systematically oppresses the press, detains innocent civilians and displays absolutely no regard for individual liberty, enjoys membership on the HRC. Cuba, a country within which thousands of civil dissidents remain imprisoned, also boasts prestige in the promotion of human rights thanks to their position on the Council. Protected by their membership, these nations continue to violate the most basic and inalienable rights of their citizens, and they are far from the only perpetrators.
These nations are lauded as the foremost leaders for the cause of universal human rights, yet in actuality they are the largest threats to the cause.
In 2005, then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan disbanded the Human Rights Commission, crediting his decision to the body’s “credibility deficit.” The organization was running rampant with the very evil it was supposedly seeking to eradicate. It became abundantly apparent that the morally bankrupt institution could not be remedied from within, so it was dissolved. The following year, the Human Rights Council was conceived as a successive body to the defunct Human Rights Commission. Now, it appears the second iteration has also failed miserably in its mandate.
As Ambassador Haley emphasized, the United States has always been forging ahead, forming the foray on the foreground of the fight for human rights. Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a main contributor to the universal declaration of human rights, and she served as the first chairperson of any United Nations organization dedicated entirely to the cause of human rights. Roosevelt’s unwavering commitment to this cause cemented the United States’ role as the global leader on human rights. Now, Ambassador Haley is looking to don that mantle in the new millennium.
But occupying a seat on the HRC does not make one a champion of human rights, as Venezuela, Cuba, China, Saudi Arabia and other member states have so efficiently demonstrated. Ambassador Haley believes that in order to truly champion the cause of universal human rights, the U.S. cannot simply sit on the Council. It must seek to change it.
Ambassador Haley outlined her plan to improve the Human Rights Council quite simply. First, the process of being voted onto the Council must be made competitive. Presently, regional blocs nominate states who are automatically placed on the Council. Under Ambassador Haley’s proposal, states would be forced to compete for votes, compelling voting states to consider the human rights records of the nominees more thoroughly. Additionally, Ambassador Haley requests that the secret ballot be no longer employed, forcing countries that are willing to support human rights violators to “show their faces.”
Finally, the Council must remove Agenda Item 7. In an official Agenda containing only ten items, one necessitates the singling out of Israel for criticism. Item 4 requires the Council to direct its attention to any human rights situations which need consideration, so Item 4 is at best redundant and unnecessary and at worst a crumbling façade for anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias. As racial discrimination, xenophobia and all forms of intolerance are directly forbade by the Council’s Agenda Item 9, the Council’s own blatant bigotry and protrusive prejudice is especially rich.
Only when these urgent changes are made can the legitimacy of the Human Rights Council be restored. However, like its doomed predecessor, it is entirely possible and indeed even probable that the Council will refuse to be altered. Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard his spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.
As Ambassador Haley underscored, founding human rights advocate Eleanor Roosevelt acknowledged that the cause of human rights will never prevail through the work of a governmental body or grand organization. Good can only spring forth from the hearts of individuals, not the toiling of institutions.
The United States will no longer accept the status quo, which is to say the United States will no longer sit idly by as a gentleman’s club supposedly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all humans are created equal continues to convene only to trample on ideals such as liberty and equality.
The world has been put on notice. Unlike the Council sworn to protect it, the United States will not give up the cause of universal human rights. As Ambassador Haley proclaimed, “Whether it’s here, or in other venues, we will continue this fight.”
If her charge for change is met, by all means, let us continue the fight here. If not, other venues may be entirely necessary.
Kyla Percival is a columnist for the GW College Republicans. The opinions expressed on this blog are her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official views of the GW College Republicans.