Appointment of New U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights

On August 8 U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced his nomination of  Michelle Bachelet to be the new U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. On August 10 the nomination was approved by the 193-member U.N. General Assembly. [1]

Ms. Bachelet was most recently President of Chile between 2014 and 2018, having served previously from 2006 to 2010, the year in which she was appointed the first Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN‑Women).  Ms. Bachelet also held ministerial portfolios in the Government of Chile, serving as Minister for Defence (2002‑2004) and Minister for Health (2000‑2002). She was imprisoned and  tortured under the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Initial Reactions to the Appointment

The current High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, whose term ends August 31, said, “I am truly delighted by the appointment of Michelle Bachelet as the next UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She has all the attributes – courage, perseverance, passion, and a deep commitment to human rights – to make her a successful High Commissioner. The UN Human Rights Office looks forward to welcoming her and working under her leadership for the promotion and protection of all human rights, for everyone, everywhere.”[2]

The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, immediately commented on this selection. She said it was incumbent on Ms. Bachelet “to speak out against” what the U.S. regarded as the U.N. Human Rights Council’s failures “to adequately address major human rights crises in Iran, North Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and elsewhere, or stop its chronic, disproportionate obsession with Israel.” The Ambassador also noted what she called “the Council’s  consistent failure to address extreme human rights abuses in the Western Hemisphere, in Venezuela and Cuba in particular.”[3]

The Cuban Observatory of Human Rights (OCDH), which is based in Madrid, Spain, called this appointment a”grave error.” This was based on its opinion that she had shown a “weak commitment to fundamental rights” during her two terms as President of  Chile.[4]

At the General Assembly, however, Cuba congratulated Bachelet on her appointment and said  Cuba “trusts in her proven experience and knowledge to perform an excellent performance in her position, away from double standards, politicization and selectivity.” Cuba also regretted the U.S. lukewarm acceptance of the appointment coupled with criticism of Cuba and then the Cuba representative launched Cuba’s litany of complaints about the U..S. A similar statement was issued by Venezuela.[5]

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[1] U.N., Secretary-General Nominates Michelle Bachelet of Chile as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (Aug. 8, 2018); U.N., Former Chilean President Bachelet put forward by UN chief as next High Commissioner for Human Rights (Aug. 8, 2018); Reuters, U.N. General Assembly Approves Chile’s Bachelet as Rights Chief, N.Y. Times (Aug. 10, 2018).

[2] U.N. Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid warmly welcomes appointment of new UN Human Rights Chief (Aug. 10, 2018).

[3] U.S. Mission to U.N., Statement by Ambassador Haley on the Nomination of Michelle Bachelet to be UN Commissioner for Human Rights (Aug. 8, 2018).

[4] The OCDH considers the designation of Bachelet as head of human rights at the UN a “grave error,” Diario de Cuba (Aug. 9, 2018).

[5] Cuba and Venezuela congratulate Bachelet for her appointment to the UN, Cubadebate (Aug. 10, 2018).

 

Controversy Over U.S. Withdrawal from U.N. Human Rights Council 

As discussed in prior posts, on June 19 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley announced that the U.S. was withdrawing from its membership on the U.N. Human Rights Council.[1] That decision has prompted controversy.

Ambassador Haley’s Letter to NGOs

The first controversy was created by a June 20 letter from U.S. Ambassador Haley to 18 human rights organizations accusing them of contributing to the U.S. decision to leave the Council. Her reason for this startling assertion was their opposing her failed effort last month for a General Assembly vote on U.S.-proposed changes to the Council and thereby putting themselves “on the side of Russia and China, and opposite the United States, on a key human rights issue.”[2]

One of the letter’s recipients, Human Rights Watch (HRW), by its director for the UN, Louis Charbonneau, agreed that HRW had opposed the Ambassador’s efforts on this issue, but did so because it feared her proposed changes could have led to amendments from Russia, China and other nations to weaken the Council. “The risk was that it would have opened a Pandora’s box of even worse problems. The idea that human rights groups were trying to undermine genuine attempts to reform the council, or that we were working with countries like Russia, is outrageous and ridiculous.”

Another recipient of the letter, the International Humanist and Ethical Union, through its head Andrew Copson, stated that earlier this June it and 14 other advocacy groups had sent a letter expressing concern over efforts by the U.S. “to reduce the role for civil society organizations through a process of ‘efficiency savings.” This organization, therefore, was ‘appalled to receive “this bizarre rant” from the Ambassador that “betrays a deep and profound ignorance of the work of the IHEU, and humanists around the world, to suggest that we would support the autocratic regimes of China and Russia. Much of our work at the UN is in exposing and opposing those states’ human rights abuses.”

Reactions from Other Governments

The second controversy came from the U.N. Secretary General and from diplomats in Geneva.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the United States to rethink its decision to pull out of the world’s top human rights body and said that he “would much prefer for the United States to remain in the Human Rights Council.” He added: “I do believe that the human rights architecture is a key tool at the present moment in order to promote and to protect human rights around the world.”

Meanwhile at the Council in Geneva, “critics and friends alike read the latest Trump move to snub yet another international institution as a sign that U.S. was jettisoning its reputation as a key defender of human rights and self-inflicting a blow to its international image.”[3]

Julian Braithwaite, Britain’s ambassador in Geneva, told the Council. “We have lost a member who has been at the forefront of liberty for generations. While we agree with the U.S. on the need for reform, our support for this Human Rights Council remains steadfast.”

Even Russia  and China criticized the U.S. exit. In Moscow, Russia’s Foreign Ministry criticized what was described as Washington’s “boorish cynicism in stubbornly refusing to recognize its own human rights problems while trying to tailor the council to its political interests.” In Beijing, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the Council is “an important platform” for countries to discuss human rights and that Beijing has been committed to supporting the group’s work.

About the only country to support the U.S. resignation was Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office called the U.S. decision “courageous “and an “unequivocal statement that enough is enough.”

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[1] U.S. Withdraws from U.N. Human Rights Council, dwkcommentaries.com (June 20, 2018); Washington Post Opposes U.S. Withdrawal from U.N. Human Rights Council, dwkcommentaries.com (June 21, 2018).

[2] Harris, Haley Blames Watchdog Groups for U.S. Withdrawal From U.N. Rights Council, N.Y. Times (June 20, 2018); Washington accuses several NGOs of contributing to its departure from the Human Rights Council, Diario de Cuba (June 21, 2018); McLeiland, Humanists shocked to receive ‘bizarre rant’ from United States, IHEWU (June 21, 2018).

[3]  Assoc. Press, Allies Disappointed by ‘Big Bang’ of US Walkout from UN Body, N.Y. Times (June 20, 2018); Assoc. Press, UN, Russia Call on US to Rethink Human Rights Council Move, N.Y. Times (June 21, 2018); Human Rts. Watch, UN: US Retreat  from Rights Body Self-defeating (June 19, 2018).

U.S. Withdraws from U.N. Human Rights Council 

On June 19 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley announced that the U.S. had “withdrawn” from its membership on the U.N. Human Rights Council.[1] The Council’s current President, Ambassador Vojislav Šuc (Slovenia) immediately responded to this news.

Secretary Pompeo’s Remarks

“The Trump administration is committed to protecting and promoting the God-given dignity and freedom of every human being. Every individual has rights that are inherent and inviolable. They are given by God, and not by government. Because of that, no government must take them away.”

“For decades, the United States has led global efforts to promote human rights, often through multilateral institutions. While we have seen improvements in certain human rights situations, for far too long we have waited while that progress comes too slowly or in some cases never comes. Too many commitments have gone unfulfilled.”

“President Trump .. . has called out institutions or countries who say one thing and do another. And that’s precisely the problem at the . . . Council. As President Trump said at the UN General Assembly: “It is a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations that some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the . . . Council.” In short, the Council now “is a poor defender of human rights.”

It “has become an exercise in shameless hypocrisy – with many of the world’s worst human rights abuses going ignored, and some of the world’s most serious offenders sitting on the council itself.” Those members include “authoritarian governments with unambiguous and abhorrent human rights records, such as China, Cuba, and Venezuela.” In addition, the Council’s “bias against Israel is unconscionable. Since its creation, the council has adopted more resolutions condemning Israel than against the rest of the world combined.”

Moreover, the U.S. “will not take lectures form hypocritical bodies and institution as Americans selflessly give their blood and treasure to help the defenseless.”

 Ambassador Haley’s Remarks

The Ambassador recalled her speech to the Council in June 2017 that “declared our intent to remain a part of the . . . Council if essential reforms were achieved.. . . to make the council a serious advocate for human rights.”[2]

She then provided details on how the U.S. since then unsuccessfully has endeavored to obtain such reforms. Therefore, the U.S. “is officially withdrawing from the . . . Council.”

The details of the failure of reform included: (a) the U.N. General Assembly last Fall electing as a Council member the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which “is widely known to have one of the worst human rights records in the world;” (b) the Council would not hold “a meeting on the human rights conditions in Venezuela” because it is a Council member; (c) early this year the Council passed five resolutions against Israel; (d) the U.S. effort to reform the Council was blocked by “unfree countries,” including “Russia, China, Cuba, and Egypt;” and (e) “many members that share U.S. values “were unwilling to seriously challenge the status quo.”

In contrast, she said, under U.S. leadership the U.N. Security Council this past 12 months held its “first ever . . . session dedicated to the connection between human rights and peace and security” and another session on “Iranian human rights.” In addition, last year the U.S. organized “an event on Venezuela outside the Human Rights Council chambers in Geneva.” And the Ambassador herself has traveled “to UN refugee and internally displaced persons camps in Ethiopia, Congo, Turkey, and Jordan, and met with the victims of atrocities in those troubled regions.”

Council President Šuc’s Statement[3]

“While I recognize it is the prerogative of any member State to take such a decision [to withdraw], I wish to acknowledge that the United States has been a very active participant at the Council having engaged constructively on numerous issues aimed at improving the lives of rights holders around the globe, including the many issues which we are addressing in our current session. The Human Rights Council always stands to benefit from constructive engagement of its member States.”

“In times when the value and strength of multilateralism and human rights are being challenged on a daily basis, it is essential that we uphold a strong and vibrant Council recognizing it as a central part of the United Nations for the 21st century.”

“Over the past 12 years, the . . . Council has tackled numerous human rights situations and issues keeping them in sharp focus.  In many senses, the Council serves as an early warning system by sounding the alarm bells ahead of impending or worsening crises.  Its actions lead to meaningful results for the countless human rights victims worldwide, those the Council serves.”

“The . . . Council is the only intergovernmental body responding to human rights issues and situations worldwide, with the active participation of civil society.  It provides a unique setting to hear a wide range of views, including those which other organizations are unable or unwilling to discuss.”

Conclusion

I disagree with the U.S. decision to withdraw from its membership on the Council for several reasons.

First, the Human Rights Council does not have the power to order any Council member or any other U.N. member to do anything. Instead it is “responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and [making] recommendations on them. It has the ability to discuss all thematic human rights issues and situations that require its attention.” In short, it is a forum for discussion or debate on these issues, and the U.S. has an important voice to raise on these issues.

Second, there are 47 Council members, and although the U.S. correctly points out that some members have horrible human rights records, there is no claim that such countries constitute a majority of the Council. Moreover, no country in the world has a perfect record on these issues, including the U.S.

Third, all Council members, including the bad actors, are subject to Universal Periodic Review (UPR) every five years. A mere summary of the latest UPRs for the countries mentioned by Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Haley shows that each of them received many recommendations for improving their human rights records, thereby negating or diminishing the notion advanced by these two U.S. officials that those with poor records escape censure by the Council.[4]

Fourth, the High Commissioner for Human Rights has the authority and responsibility to provide the Council with his or her assessment of human rights concerns in the world. The current High Commission did just that on June 18 (the day before the previously mentioned U.S. decision to withdraw from the Council).[5] In so doing he had critical comments about  seven of the nine countries identified by Pompeo and Haley as having bad human rights records (China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Iran, Russia, Turkey and Venezuela).

Fifth, the High Commissioner had these critical fact-based criticisms of    Israel and the U.S., which both countries should be willing and able to evaluate on their merits:

  • “Israel continues to deny access to the Occupied Palestinian Territory by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of human rights in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967. This has been the case for three successive holders of the mandate. Access has also been denied to all of the Council’s previous Commissions of Inquiry, including on Gaza in 2014. I believe the Council’s advocacy of impartial monitoring and expert recommendations is entirely justified by the gravity of the situation, and I urge Israel to provide access to all human rights mechanisms – including the investigative body mandated last month – to enable impartial monitoring and advance accountability and justice.” (Emphasis in original.)
  • “In the United States, I am deeply concerned by recently adopted policies which punish children for their parents’ actions. In the past six weeks, nearly two thousand children have been forcibly separated from their parents. The American Association of Pediatrics has called this cruel practice ‘government-sanctioned child abuse’ which may cause ‘irreparable harm,’ with ‘lifelong consequences’. The thought that any State would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable. I call on the [U.S.] to immediately end the practice of forcible separation of these children, and I encourage the Government to at last ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in order to ensure that the fundamental rights of all children, whatever their administrative status, will be at the center of all domestic laws and policies.” (Emphasis in original.) [6]

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[1]  U.S. State Dep’t, Remarks on the UN Human Rights Council (June 19, 2018). The Council is made up of 47 U.N. Member States, which are elected by the majority of members of the U.N. General Assembly through direct and secret ballot. The Council’s Members serve for a period of three years and are not eligible for immediate re-election after serving two consecutive terms. The U.S. is in its second consecutive term ending  January 1, 2019.

[2] Haley, Remarks at the United Nations Human Rights Council (June 6, 2017); Haley, Remarks at the Graduate Institute of Geneva on “A Place for Conscience: the Future of the United States in the Human Rights Council” (June 6, 2017).

[3] Human Rts. Council, Press Statement by the President of the Human Rights Council, Ambassador Vojislav Šuc (Slovenia) (June 19, 2018)

[4] Human Rights Council: Report of the Working Group on the UPR-China (252 paragraphs of recommendations) (Dec. 4, 2013);Report of the Working Group on the UPR-Cuba (292 paragraphs of recommendations) (July 8, 2013); Report of the Working Group on the UPR-Democratic Republic of Congo (229 paragraphs of recommendations) (July 7, 2014); Report of the Working Group on the UPR-Ethiopia (252 paragraphs of recommendations) (July 7, 2014); Report of the Working Group on the UPR-Iran (291 paragraphs of recommendations) (Dec. 22, 2014); Report of the Working Group on the UPR-Jordan (173 paragraphs of recommendations) (Jan. 6, 2014); Report of the Working Group on the UPR-Russian Federation (231 paragraphs of recommendations) (July 8, 2013);Report of the Working Group on the UPR-Turkey (278  paragraphs of recommendations) (April 13, 2015); Report of the Working Group on the UPR-Venezuela (274  paragraphs of recommendations) (Dec. 27, 2016).

[5]  U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Opening statement and global update of human rights concerns by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Hussein at 38th session of the Human Rights Council (June 18, 2018).

[6] After a firestorm of criticism by the public and politicians from both major political parties, President Trump on June 20 signed an executive order ending the policy of separating immigrant children from their immigrant parents. (Haberman & Shear, Trump Signs Executive Order to Keep Families Together, N.Y. Times (June 20, 2018).)