UNITED NATIONS — The Trump administration warned Tuesday that the United States could pull out of the U.N. Human Rights Council unless the body ends what Washington calls the whitewashing of dictators’ abuses and unfair attacks on Israel.
President Trump’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, delivered the ultimatum in an unusual address in Geneva to the 47-member body.
“The United States is looking very carefully at this council and our participation in it. We see some areas for significant strengthening,” Haley told council members.
“Being a member of this council is a privilege, and no country who is a human rights violator should be allowed a seat at the table.”
The United States accuses the council of shielding the repressive regimes it should be condemning, allowing such regimes to join the body and then use it to thwart scrutiny. It is the same criticism that led former president George W. Bush to shun the council in 2006, a decision that President Barack Obama reversed in his first year in office.
Haley pointed to what she said are egregious human rights violations in Venezuela, a council member, and said if the country cannot change then it should step down from the council.
Haley outlined proposals for change in a separate address later Tuesday, delivered away from the council headquarters. She again accused Venezuela of masking starvation and repression at home with membership in the human rights body and added others to the list of those she said misuse positions on the council.
“Countries like Venezuela, Cuba, China, Burundi and Saudi Arabia occupy positions that obligate them to, in the words of the resolution that created the Human Rights Council, ‘uphold the highest standards’ of human rights,” Haley said in remarks at the Graduate Institute Geneva.
“They clearly do not uphold those highest standards.”
She did not mention U.S. ally Egypt, a council member accused of arbitrary detention, torture and other abuses.
“When the council fails to act properly — when it fails to act at all — it undermines its own credibility and the cause of human rights,” Haley said.
“It leaves the most vulnerable to suffer and die. It fuels the cynical belief that countries cannot put aside self-interest and cooperate on behalf of human dignity. It reinforces our growing suspicion that the Human Rights Council is not a good investment of our time, money and national prestige.”
The council risks becoming as discredited as its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, Haley said.
That 60-year-old body was disbanded in 2006 as irredeemably tainted by its protection of abusers, and the Human Rights Council was formed as a fresh start.
“America does not seek to leave the Human Rights Council. We seek to reestablish the council’s legitimacy,” Haley said.
Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Program, attended the council session.
“It’s hard to take Ambassador Haley seriously on U.S. support for human rights in light of Trump administration actions like the Muslim ban and immigration crackdowns,” he said in a statement. “Regardless of the party in power, the U.S. needs to lead by example and practice what it preaches on human rights.”
The United States is demanding changes to the way members of the council are chosen. Countries should have to compete for membership, thus making it much harder for human rights abusers to slip through, Haley argued.
The council must also stop singling out Israel for criticism, Haley said.
The former South Carolina governor, frequently mentioned as a future Republican presidential candidate, has focused heavily on what she calls mistreatment of Israel at the United Nations. The effort has endeared her to Israeli leaders and to conservative U.S. pro-Israel organizations. Haley will travel to Israel later this week.
“It’s hard to accept that this council has never considered a resolution on Venezuela, and yet it adopted five biased resolutions in March against a single country, Israel,” Haley said in her remarks before the council. “It is essential that this council address its chronic anti-Israel bias if it is to have any credibility.”
The council should immediately address worsening human rights conditions in Syria, Congo, Eritrea and Ukraine, Haley told the body.
Before she spoke, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein had criticized Israel for the 50-year occupation of land the Palestinians claim for a future state. He invoked the Holocaust while saying that Israel’s actions now are not comparable.
“The Holocaust was so monstrous and so mathematically planned and executed it has no parallel, no modern equal,” Zeid said. “Yet it is also undeniable that today, the Palestinian people mark a half-century of deep suffering under an occupation imposed by military force.”
In June 1967, Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights in fighting with Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
In response, Israeli U.N. Ambassador Danny Danon criticized Zeid, a veteran Jordanian diplomat, and said Israel is “looking forward to working with the U.S. to enact real reforms and put an end to this most absurd chapter in the history of the U.N.”
“The connection between the commissioner and human rights has proven to be purely coincidental and it comes as no surprise that he chose to spread lies about Israel before he even mentioned the massacres in Syria,” Danon wrote in a statement issued in New York.
Haley is the first U.S. United Nations ambassador to address the council, and her address is part of a Trump administration campaign to demand chages to what Haley has called hidebound and biased U.N. bureaucracies.
A separate ambassador represents Washington at the council and at other U.N. bodies headquartered in Geneva, so Haley’s decision to make her case in person was intended to underscore U.S. frustration.
A U.S. withdrawal would have only symbolic effect, since the council has no enforcement powers, but would represent further U.S. disengagement from international organizations.
The ultimatum follows Trump’s announcement last week that the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate change accord and his refusal to specifically pledge allegiance to European defense at a NATO summit last month.
The debate over whether to remain a part of the U.N. Human Rights Council has parallels to the administration’s internal discussion about the 2015 Paris agreement, with some Trump advisers arguing that the United States can have more influence by remaining a member.
Haley had said last week that the Trump administration would decide on its council membership status after the council’s session concludes later this month.