GENEVA - Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, has warned that the Trump Administration might pull out of the Human Rights Council if the U.N. body does not undertake necessary reforms.
In a tough “take no prisoners” speech at the opening of the council's three-week session, Haley put the group on notice that it should mend its ways.
“As you know, the United States is looking carefully at this council and our participation in it. We see some areas for significant strengthening,” she said.
Haley is the 29th U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and the first to address the U.N. Human Rights Council. Her tough, unequivocal message was not lost on the 47-member Council.
She criticized the human rights forum for what she perceived to be a double standard applied to Israel. By way of example, she noted that the Council had never adopted a resolution condemning Venezuela for its serious human rights violations.
“And, yet it adopted five biased resolutions in March against a single country, Israel. It is essential that this council address its chronic anti-Israel bias if it is to have any credibility,” she said.
Handling of Israel
The United States and Israel are allies. Washington has long argued that the council unfairly focuses on Israel's alleged violations of human rights, including its treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Even critics of Israel's policies on the Occupied Palestinian Territories have acknowledged that Israel was being unfairly singled out for special attention at the council.
They note that grave and systematic human rights abuses in all other countries, such as North Korea, Syria, Eritrea, Iran, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi are examined under the same item 4 on the agenda. Israel, however, is dealt with under its own special item 7.
At the same time, critics blame the United States for this situation. Because President George W. Bush boycotted the council for three years, they argue that Washington had “lost its seat at the table” and therefore was not able to use its influence to prevent item 7 from becoming part of the council agenda.
The U.S. rejoined the Council in 2009 under Barack Obama's Administration.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra-ad al-Hussein did not engage in this debate. In his opening remarks to the council Tuesday, however, he called for “the end of the occupation.”
He said “the Palestinians deserve freedom, as all peoples do. They deserve to bring up their children safe in their homes, on their land, exercising their rights in their state, free from this long and bitter occupation.”
At the same time, he noted that “the Israelis also deserve freedom, for they have long had their state, but they, too, have suffered grievously.”
Zeid added that “Israelis, too, need to be free from this violence, from any existential threat posed to them.”
Venezuela’s place on council questioned
U.S. Ambassador Haley said membership of the council was an area open to reform, noting that Venezuela, a country with a poor human rights record, was a member of the council — a situation she found untenable.
She said the council must address this issue. If Venezuela could not make improvements in its human rights record, she said “it should voluntarily step down from its seat on the Human Rights Council until it can get its own house in order.”
She said “being a member of the Council is a privilege, and no country who is a human rights violator should be allowed a seat at the table.”
John Fisher, Geneva Director of Human Rights Watch agreed that the council could benefit from reform.
“While no State's human rights record is perfect,” he said in a statement, “any steps that improve membership standards would strengthen the Human Rights Council and enhance its ability to tackle human rights abuses worldwide.”
ACLU director calls out US
Another view of Haley's remarks at the council was uttered by Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, who said it was hard to take the ambassador's support for human rights seriously “in light of Trump administration actions like the Muslim ban and immigration crackdowns.”
He said the U.S. must get its own house in order and make human rights at home a priority, “then it can begin to credibly demand the same of other countries abroad.”
Haley reserved some of her harshest observations regarding the worsening human rights situation in Venezuela for a side event hosted by the U.S. Mission later in the day on human rights and democracy in Venezuela.
She lambasted the government of Nicolas Maduro for starving and repressing its citizens. She accused the government of “conducting a campaign of violence and intimidation against unarmed demonstrators, businesses, civil society, and freely elected political opposition.”
She noted that since April, more than 60 people demonstrating against the government have been killed, more than 1,000 have been injured and nearly 3,000 have been detained, including over 300 civilians charged with criminality in military courts.
Maduro regime ‘desperate’
She said that President Maduro had begun the process of withdrawing from the Organization of American States, “turning his back on the principles of democracy and self-determination in the Inter-American Democratic Charter.”
She called the deteriorating situation in Venezuela “an economic, political and humanitarian crisis that demands the world's attention.”
The U.S. Ambassador said the Maduro regime “was desperate to hide its abuses from the world” and implied that its efforts were meeting with some success in Geneva at the Human Rights Council.
“Here, at the world's preeminent human rights organization, Venezuela is a member in good standing,” she said. “And it uses that membership to block any meaningful discussion of its human rights violations.”
Haley said the council has no excuses.
“It cannot consider itself the world's leading human rights organization and continue to ignore the violations and abuses that are occurring in Venezuela,” she said.
Haley’s comments alternately antagonized Maduro’s supporters and buoyed his rivals.
Rafael Ramírez, Venezuela’s ambassador to the U.N., said the United States shares responsibility for the “suffering in our country because it encourages and stimulates the most violent groups and interferes in our internal affairs." Ramirez accused the United States of crafting “a calculated and committed strategy against our country.”
But opposition lawmakers welcomed Haley’s demand for Venezuela to restore protection of its people’s human rights or else lose its spot on the Security Council.
Juan Requesens, who serves in the opposition-led National Assembly, appealed to the international community for support – including through sanctions against rights violators.
Venezuela needs “solidarity among nations, too, and support from the entire international community,” Requesens said, “because this nation is dying of hunger and is resisting a repressive regime.”
VOA Spanish Service correspondent Alvaro Algarra contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.