The UN in the Trump Era

The UN in the Trump Era
  • I feel privileged to be kicking-off this conversation of such esteemed experts on the United Nations, all with different insider perspectives and knowledge; thank you for agreeing to take part in this discussion.

    As the introduction set out, since the change in US President this year the US relationship with the UN has been on tricky ground. The appointment of Nikki Haley as Ambassador seemed a rather unusual move given that she had no previous experience (or perhaps even knowledge) of the UN, and a few months into the post it seems that she has chosen specific issues to target rather than taking a holistic approach.

    The threats to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council are yet to be acted upon, but do we think that they will make good on that threat? And does it matter? After all, the Human Rights Council got off the ground in 2006 despite – or perhaps because of – the US refusing to be an active participant in the body. Would it really topple the house of cards if the US withdrew?

    Related to that, what do you make of the threats the US is making to peacekeeping? It seems that this is somewhat more troubling, not least because of the purse-strings held by that country. Do you think that the closing of peacekeeping operations in some countries is a direct response to US threats, or would they have naturally come to a conclusion at this time?

    I think that those are enough questions to begin with!
  • Greetings to all.

    These are all interesting questions and cannot be answered in a one-dimensional way. On Monday, I was privileged to speak to a group of postgraduate students from American University, most of whom could not think of a single achievement of the Commission on Human Rights. One said it was probably a start, but needed to go. Another was astonished when I indicated that it had provided a space for civil society greater than other areas of the UN and that the Council had built on that.

    As with all issues, discussions of the Council would benefit from a long view. It is a political body which, of course, means that there will be politics. But there are achievements, many of which have been sponsored and supported by the US. Perhaps it would have been a different body if the US had engaged early on. Perhaps not, but US attention and membership have been crucial. Ahmed can certainly expand on this.

    Will the house of cards topple if it withdraws?
    Not topple, but the balance will shift and the UN’s peak body for human rights’ foundation will be less secure.
  • Interesting questions, Rosa.
    As to the appointment of Nikki Haley, while it’s true that she didn’t have a background on the UN, that isn’t unusual for the US when it makes such appointments. Past US Ambassadors to the UN – from Adlai Stevenson to Jeane Kirkpatrick and Madeleine Albright and Susan Rice lacked “previous experience” with the UN – and “perhaps even knowledge” but brought political skills and American common sense to the job. Some of those appointees have also had considerable foreign policy expertise outside the UN context, too. Nikki Haley has been given unusual prominence for a UN Ambassador in a Republican administration. At issue is whether the UN Ambassador should report to and through the Secretary of State (Foreign Minister) or have an independent line to the President. While the Democratic-appointed UN Ambassadors have been in the Cabinet, Republican appointees haven’t routinely had that status. So Nikki Haley’s appointment and Cabinet member status can actually be seen as elevating the post – and the UN as a result.

    Although the threats to withdraw from the Human Rights Council echo the discussion of 8-10 years ago, concerns about the UN Human Rights Council raised by Nikki Haley are not random nor unimportant. The HRC is a political body, not a court, yet it has a certain moral standing.

    Like it or not, it is the forum where the countries of the world – with the very active voices of non-governmental organizations engaged in defending human rights – scrutinize how human rights are being upheld or violated – and identify where and how situations revealing a pattern of gross violations need to be corrected.

    That’s why the Council’s membership is important – it speaks to the credibility of its decisions, one of the issues Haley has complained about. For example, she told a committee of the U.S. Congress last week that Venezuela deserves to be cited for the grave human rights abuses there, but that the Council won’t act because Venezuela is a member of the Council. And because Cuba and several other states with troubling rights records are Council members protecting Venezuela. At the end of the last Council session, after Haley’s visit, 48 states joined a statement read out by Holland calling for more competitive elections and greater compliance with rights-related pledges made by current Council members during their campaigns for election.

    Rather than begin by asking if the Human Rights Council will be damaged if the US withdraws, it seems essential to ask first whether the US has made a difference by being a member of the Council. We’ve recently examined what countries are the subject of criticism for gross violations of human rights and what difference US participation in the Council has made. See http://www.jbi-humanrights....

    Our main findings are that (1) U.S. presence on the Human Rights Council has resulted in scrutiny of many of the world’s worst human rights violators, including North Korea, Syria, and Iran; (2) the Council has steadfastly promoted many key universal human rights principles during these years, e.g., from freedom of expression and association to non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation; (3) U.S. participation has made a difference regarding the Human Rights Council’s treatment of Israel; and (4) the Council’s membership is a bit more rights-respecting than the membership of the UN as a whole. In other words, although much remains to be improved, U.S. engagement with the Human Rights Council has been a “game changer” for the world body, and redoubled commitment to reform could bring significant improvements.

    My conclusion? To the USA: Don’t leave, lead!
  • I agree with Felice that the lack of a UN background of Nikki Haley is both not unusual for US permanent representatives, and not a good predictor for both the effectiveness and the attitude of the post-holder towards the UN. As an aside, currently neither the British permanent representative nor his deputy have any meaningful previous UN experience (apart from a few months in Geneva at the beginning of his career in the case of Matthew Rycroft). Observers of the UN have (rightly, in my view) not drawn conclusions about UK effectiveness at, or attitude towards, the UN from that.

    With regard to the role of the Human Rights Council, I think there are two important wider points to consider in the context of the current debate initiated (or re-kindled?) by the US-initiated thematic debate on Human Rights in the Security Council.

    The first is that questions of the efficacy of particular UN institutions are often embedded into wider discussions about how the different areas of activity of the UN (sometimes rather crudely divided into the three pillars of Human Rights, International Security, and Development) relate to each other, and what part of the architecture are or should be responsible for them. At the same time as states debate the merits of a thematic debate in the Security Council on Human Rights, a key, declared aim of the new Secretary-General is to overcome the divisions between the UN’s three “pillars”, an effort that immediately raises questions about the implications of such an aim for the wider architecture. Different pressures, rooted in different motives and different parts of the organisation, can push into broadly similar directions.

    The second is the possible implications of a possible move to broaden the institutions in the intergovernmental part of the UN system that explicitly deal with human rights, whatever the reasons for it. I think it is worth asking two questions in that regard:

    ·         Were the Security Council to take a larger role in thematic human rights discussions, possible at the expense of the Human Rights Council, what would be the consequence for the breadth of these discussions, in particular access by NGOs and states not member of the Council?

    ·         What would be the consequences of the greater authority and capacity of the Security Council to take measures from sanctions to the use of force on the ability to have an open debate about the human rights in different countries?

    ·         Are there advantages in having relatively separate functional “human rights pillar”, in that this at least guarantees a space for human rights which might be crowded out more by the logic of necessity and pragmatism that frequently shapes decisions in the international security field?


    I know these take us away a bit from the original starting point of the US-UN relationship, but I think it is worth looking at this in the context of some wider questions.
  • Greetings to all! It is an honour to participate in this discussion and grateful for being included in this discussion.
    I wanted to underscore some of the points made by Felice about US participation being a game changer in the work of the Council. As pointed out, US participation essentially ensured that country-specific scrutiny became a key feature of the HRC as well-- the creation of the Iran mandate in 2011 signaled that trend. The opposition to the creation of country specific mandates was made loud and clear in the debates on the institution -building and in the 5 year review. The role of the US in ending the toxic campaign on defamation of religions is also another highlight of US participation in the Council.

    So the long and short of it, for me, is that US participation in the Council was a game changer; and its departure from the Council will, in my view, result in a slippery slope where the rights-sceptic countries will have a lot more influence. Of course, under the current administration, the US itself could be seen as a rights-sceptic country. Even so, where the US champions an issue it can be highly influential in pushing that forward. I am not an expert on EU affairs, but the EU often takes the least common denominator approach — or so it seemed to me in my time on the Iran mandate.

    I am glad that the new Secretary General has focused on the issue of building synergies across the UN system on human rights. The lack of common purpose, when it comes to human rights, has been a very frustrating matter. However, I would be cautious of how the Security Council should engage with human rights issues. There is no doubt that the UNSC must recognise, in a visible and meaningful way, its support for human rights. But the key debates on human rights and therefore the main forum for discussion and deciding on HR issues is best left to a forum which can focus on these issues full-time.

    I also think that current US calls for a more robust scrutiny of the credentials of candidate states should be welcomed; and there should be greater scrutiny of country-specific situations; and of course, the bias against Israel must be pushed back. An independent review of the human rights arm of the UN perhaps is required — not by a diplomat who is a human rights sceptic as was the case with (in my view) the last internal review by the Joint Inspection Unit; but by a panel of experts, perhaps led by Mary Robinson or Koffi Annan— ahead of the next review of the HRC.
  • It strikes me as interesting that Ambassador Haley has on the one hand emphasised that human rights are a priority but on the other hand has questioned the usefulness of the Human Rights Council. Perhaps she takes a position closer to the one Dominik sets out – focusing on the Security Council as a potential main vehicle for the protection of human rights. But what about Felice’s points regarding the proportionate representation of regions within the Human Rights Council, and the active participation of civil society in that body? These are key factors for the legitimacy and credibility of the UN human rights mechanisms.

    Perhaps most importantly when it comes to US-UN engagement, do we really think that the US wants the Security Council to do more on any issue given the threats it is making to budgets, and given that it has gone very quiet at the Security Council, leaving the UK to take the leadership role within that body?
  • I listened carefully to Ambassador Haley when she came to Geneva last month and when she spoke at the Graduate Institute, and reached the conclusion that she was personally very compelled by human rights, albeit not a specialist in the area, and not on top of what human rights in short-hand means in long-hand.

    Her questioning of the Human Rights Council focused on its members, and those which aspire to membership, and one of its agenda items. Many are suggesting a new review of the work and functioning of the Council, but I am not convinced much would be achieved, particularly considering the last review. The review of the Council’s status is an urgent need and careful preparation is required. A rerun of last year’s attempts at the General Assembly to review the Council’s work cannot be ruled out, and should be precluded by institutional change.

    And the Security Council as the main vehicle for the protection of human rights? I am not so sure, the pillars are interlinked, but need sustained attention.
  • I fully share Jane’s hesitation on making the Security Council the main vehicle for the protection of human rights. While there may be some benefits for human rights from doing so, the risks, I think, far outweigh potential benefits. Even though human rights are of course political since they empower individuals and on a limited basis communities in relation to the power of the state, the Security Council has the potential to increase the instrumentalisation of human rights for foreign policy goals of states.

    Also, as both Felice and Jane have already pointed out, access to civil society and the important role of civil society in 'mobilising for rights’ is also a major consideration and would be negatively affected should UNSC become the main forum for human rights.

    Finally, although it may no longer be fashionable to speak of “high politics” and “low politics”, I am afraid that national security and human rights are still dichotomised along these categories. This was the reason that I frequently aired the view that I was happy that the nuclear powers did not combine the nuclear file with the human rights file in their recent negotiations with Iran.

    I do agree that since the General Assembly has twice opened up debates on decisions taken by the Human Rights Council, recurrence of that is a possibility. This highlights the importance of the institutional independence of the HRC, as originally envisaged by Mr Kofi Annan. But this would require a revision to the UN Charter— and is that a likely prospect at the present time? And if that is not feasible what other practical arrangements/principles/doctrines can be used to ensure that the Human Rights Council can carryout its work unimpeded? This discussion also begs the question: is not funding or resources the most important challenge?
  • It seems to me that a key issue we are avoiding when discussing the appropriate body for human rights is whether the Security Council, which does not adhere to the UN Charter’s geographic mandate, is in need of serious reform in order for it to have legitimacy in the 21st Century?

    We saw that reform of the Human Rights Council did provide greater credibility for the UN’s main human rights body, even if some people criticise members for being political (which Sergio Vieira de Mello pointed out was akin to fish criticising one another for being wet…). If the Security Council is to expand its mandate to examine more issues of human rights then surely it needs greater credibility in terms of membership, as well as allowing civil society greater access to its members and meetings.

    Then again, I am becoming more sympathetic to Russia’s position that the Security Council ought not to focus on any matters other than preventing and containing threats to international peace and security. While human rights are an early warning of such threats, is it really the Security Council’s job to have branched out into so many human rights-based protection mandates? I may not be popular for saying this, but I suspect that one reason the US wants to bring more human rights into the Security Council (and to undermine the Human Rights Council) is because that way it has greater control over those matters!

    Ps – Jane, was that talk recorded or videoed? It sounds very interesting indeed….
  • Last things first: For Rosa and anyone who hasn’t yet viewed or read what Haley said on her trip to Geneva- Here’s her speech at Geneva Institute – about the future of the Human Rights Council.  There was also a Q & A and it was webcast so must be on line at the university website. This was her last public comment on her one-day trip.

    Here’s her speech at the Human Rights Council itself:  It was much broader, addressing the agenda of HRC35, plus a few additional points. There was no discussion. Finally, her other public speech in Geneva was at a side event on Venezuela. 

    As to Dominik’s questions about whether human rights belongs at the Security Council or should be separate --and thus protected from policy pressures of the peace and security realm, surely it belong in both places. DSG Jan Eliasson often said (and so did various SG reports, statements) that “There is no peace without development. There is no development without peace, and none of the above [can exist] without respect of human rights and rule of law.” In other words. The separation should not be absolute – When Haley had the Security Council thematic meeting on human rights there were essentially two camps: Those, like the UK, that said about human rights: bring it here, to the Security Council; and those like Venezuela, Russia, and NAM members who said it belongs in Geneva and only there. (China offered a discourse on sovereignty, avoiding the words human rights altogether as I remember it.)

    That gets us to Jane and Ahmed’s points – that the in-depth development of expertise and scrutiny of human rights compliance normally takes place through OHCHR bodies. But there are about a dozen human rights field entities including in countries where the UN SC has set up peacekeeping presences—and they do excellent work which is often considered carefully by the Security Council members. In short, it isn’t and shouldn’t be ‘either-or’—Human Rights issues can be at the heart of security threats and when they are, the UNSC should address that component too. This reality is recognized all the more in the presence, growth and reporting of the OHCHR Office in New York which is now headed by an Assistant Secretary-General.
  • Thank you for the links, Felice.

    Quick question – how can we place human rights at the heart of the UN’s work when many countries disagree with one another as to what constitutes a human right? Is this not just, to quote the China Ambassador, ‘another neo-colonial tool of oppression’?
  • It’s true that there are disagreements about human rights – but that’s nothing new. For many years countries argued economic and social rights should prevail over civil and political rights, and it was widely viewed as a way of negating the value of fundamental human rights altogether. Then the Soviet Union began to accept a formula citing all rights as universal, indivisible and interrelated – and deserving the same emphasis. The Western countries accepted economic and social rights fully and even began creating special experts to monitor them.

    China slowly entered the UN’s human rights bodies and moved from rejection and/or ‘cherishing obscurity” to accepting seven human rights treaties and affirming universality of rights. But all this time, they tried to keep the rights field isolated in Geneva (and not permeating the Security Council or other UN work in New York), underfunded and hence, without much effect. They also tried to change the meaning of rights – turning the terms and paradigms upside-down, so to speak.

    This struggle continues and it is one of the reasons why having the UK and US remain in the Human Rights Council is so important – rights would be eviscerated and emptied of their longstanding meaning if these were left to some of the deniers. They would become something like states’ rights rather than individual rights. Sovereignty would trump individual freedom, so to speak.

    Slowly, case by case, human rights has been recognized as relevant or even central to the resolution of security problems the UN is dealing with. This struggle continues, mostly case by case, notwithstanding the efforts of some countries to call them by derogatory names or dilute the meaning of universality.