Will US Quitting Human Rights Council Help the Social Conservative Cause?

By Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D. | July 27, 2018

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 27 (C-Fam) U.S. withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council has long been on the wish list of some conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation that hosted a masterful apologia by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley last week. Social conservatives should pay close attention to the administration’s next steps.

The changes in practice announced this week—moving human rights issues into the UN Security Council among them—may make it harder to contain the redefinition of human rights with harmful new meanings, something that the administration is trying to do.

Haley and her colleagues from the State Department signaled that leaving Geneva was part of a broader strategy. They seek to refocus international human rights back to civil and political violations, like getting “beaten up,” and away from social change, such as “speech codes” that make people “feel better” they said. The political vs. social rights debate in human rights is a legacy of the Cold War.

The human rights debate is more a labyrinth than any time since 1948. The administration is not immune from the confusion this can cause. For example, it has taken a stand against false claims to an international right to abortion; yet it continues the promotion of new rights based on gender identity repeatedly rejected by the UN General Assembly. The administration will have to clarify the mixed messages it is sending other member states if it is to be successful in its new approach.

That raises the question of how quitting Geneva will affect that endeavor.

Haley called the Human Rights Council “the United Nation’s greatest failure. She noted that the council has become one of many politicized UN committees. But this is not just because of its illiberal makeup and its hatred for Israel. Human rights are weakened by the explosion of human rights and of the groups promoting them.

No small part of the problem is the shift away from the council and from UN member states and to the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. The office’s enormous bureaucracy controls an even larger UN rights apparatus of treaty bodies and special mandate holders who have often pushed social rights to the extreme.

By moving to New York, Haley and her colleagues say they can better “keep an eye” on the process and that they plan to raise in the UN General Assembly’s third committee those issues that they formerly would have brought to the council. Yet that committee’s agenda is largely set by the council and by the office of the high commissioner in Geneva. The retreat to New York moves U.S. diplomats farther from the source of the problem.

Likewise, Haley said she will raise human rights in the Security Council because, “When we act to protect human rights we act to prevent conflict.”

Bringing Geneva’s contentious rights debates to the Security Council may usher the fox into the henhouse. Just this week the notorious Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women signed a pact with a Security Council-mandated office, the first time this has been done. This committee has long asserted, without authority, a human right to abortion. The new pact puts the committee one step closer to its goal of having authority over the UN Security Council on women’s issues.

An additional problem is that the U.S. will have to horse trade with socially liberal European countries on the Security Council. Will the U.S. trade away life and family issues in order to gain support from Europe on issues in Syria and Korea?

The administration proposes trying to reform illiberal states through USAID funding of civil society groups and imposing sanctions on elites.

To restore the UN to a traditional understanding of human rights it will also have to engage with these same states in New York. Beltway conservatives will turn up their noses, but they should be realistic. These nations often pursue goals aligned with U.S. foreign policy because of the goodness and aspirations of their people, which despots have not destroyed.

They will further have to convince delegates to rehash debates their colleagues in Geneva already settled at the Human Rights Council—unless and until other countries follow America’s lead and abandon it.