Winning In the UN Human Rights Council arena
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Prior to his inauguration, President Trump tweeted about the United Nations, “things will be different after Jan. 20.” To help make that happen, as president, Mr. Trump should intensify U.S. leadership at the primary UN human rights organ, the Human Rights Council, not pull back. In doing so, the Trump administration would signal that human rights are inextricably connected to U.S. values, fulfill campaign promises to achieve more wins for U.S. interests globally, and acknowledge the chorus of voices on Capitol Hill calling to actively combat anti-Israel bias at the UN.

President Trump’s public commitments to human rights have been limited, but there have been a few brighter spots. As the Republican presidential nominee, Mr. Trump forcefully advocated for the expansion of political and religious freedoms in Cuba. And at the 2016 Republican National Convention, Trump’s pledge to protect the LGBTQ community against threats from ISIS received raucous applause. During her Senate hearing to be confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley unequivocally declared, “I have a clear understanding that it is not acceptable to stay silent when our values are challenged.”


A newly released Council on Foreign Relations report shows U.S. engagement on the Council has had conclusive impact. For instance, the U.S. has worked with partners to steadily chip away at the structural bias against Israel at the UN.

Despite the regrettable continuation of a dedicated Council agenda item on Israel, both special sessions and country-specific resolutions on Israel are down as a direct result of U.S. leadership; in fact, the proportion of country-specific resolutions on Israel has dropped to around one-fifth.

Dogged U.S. engagement at the Council has also boosted the organ’s appetite for deserved scrutiny of other countries. New UN investigatory mechanisms have been established on Iran, Syria, and Belarus among others. North Korean leaders were left scrambling following the release of findings from a Commission of Inquiry established by the Council, with U.S. support. Cuba has endured the second-highest level of scrutiny under the Council’s Universal Periodic Review. In 2016, the U.S. also huddled with key allies to sound a common voice on China’s human rights record for the first time in a dozen years.

The U.S. has also deftly used a diversity of diplomatic tools to assist in elevating the human rights of LGBTQ people through the Council; It is no secret that the Islamic State would prefer a world with fewer norms against extrajudicial killings based on sexual orientation or gender identity than more. Further, the U.S. has skillfully engaged a cross-regional coalition at the Council to establish an international watchdog on the rights to the freedom of assembly and association, the first such fundamental freedoms-focused mandate in seventeen years.

Retreating from the Council means backsliding. Various U.S. and non-U.S. scholars, diplomats, non-governmental organizations, and international public servants interviewed for the CFR study reported that when the U.S. benched itself at the Council during the George W. Bush administration, a small group of rights-violators dominated the body. During that time, upwards of 60 percent of country-specific resolutions focused on Israel. UN mandates to monitor rights abuses in Cuba and Belarus were cancelled. In other words, Washington has already seen what happens when it cedes its seat at the table: it loses. It would be a mistake to assume that the U.S. should carry these loads alone. Rather, multilateral partnerships and burden sharing remain crucial.

The Trump administration should urge the Senate to move swiftly to confirm a new Council ambassador who can exercise catalytic leadership. Capitol Hill should also avoid measures attempting to legislatively restrict Council participation or defund the UN. Doing so would merely weaken the U.S.’ hand against those regimes that favor strengthening structural bias against Israel and dilute Council actions on rights-violating countries. Finally, the U.S. delegation at the Council should doubly emphasize the need for resolutions that effectuate change on the ground. This would help elevate prevention in U.S. foreign policy over more costly reactiveness, lest rights crises metastasize.

Newly confirmed U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley was right to criticize a UN human rights organ that currently includes egregious rights violators as members. But in disengaging from the Council, the U.S. would lose credibility to urge freer countries to seek seats that would eventually realize a stronger composition. This may not be as difficult as it seems given that Russia lost its seat on the Council last October – its first absence from a top UN human rights organ in seventy years.

Further, the U.S. just began a new three-year term on the Council in January 2017. Now is the time to jump in with both feet, and commit to winning in the Human Rights Council.

Mark P. Lagon is Centennial Fellow at Georgetown University, and served as Ambassador-At-Large and as Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Organizations at the State Department during the Bush administration. Ryan Kaminski is Senior Program Manager for Human Rights at the United Nations Foundation.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.