Washington (CNN)US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley accused more than a dozen human rights groups of sharing responsibility for the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council, saying they opposed US efforts to overhaul the body and comparing them to Russia and China.
The spat over the Human Rights Council comes as the Trump administration is facing scrutiny at home for its own human rights record, including its treatment of migrants at the southern border, where parents are being separated from their children, some of them very young, after illegally crossing into the US.
It also reflects a tension between the Trump administration and international bodies, including NATO and the G7, and evokes a historical echo. The last time the US pulled out of the UN Human Rights Council was in 2006, when John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, was US ambassador to the UN.
‘On the side of Russia and China’
US officials sayHaley was responding to a joint letter the human rights groups sent in May to members of the Geneva-based council opposing US efforts to enact specific changes to the council through the UN General Assembly in New York.
That letter, Haley argued, “sought to undermine our attempts to improve the Human Rights Council.”
“You should know that your efforts to block negotiations and thwart reform were a contributing factor in the US decision to withdraw from the Council,” Haley said in separate, but identical, letters to the groups, several of which were obtained by CNN. “Going forward, we encourage you to play a constructive role on behalf of human rights, rather than the deconstructive one you played in this instance.”
“You put yourself on the side of Russia and China, and opposite the United States, on a key human rights issue,” Haley said.
Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said the suggestion that the rights groups had undermined US efforts or influenced other countries to oppose Haley’s revisions was baseless.
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“I would love to actually believe that foreign governments acted because of a letter we and 16 other organizations sent, but I have been around long enough to know that is not the case,” Margon said.
Her group and the others had been talking to Haley’s team for months about their concerns that trying to change the council through a General Assembly resolution could instead weaken and undermine the body, Margon said. Opposed to the resolution on those grounds, the nongovernmental organizations sent their letter to council members urging them not to support US efforts in the General Assembly.
US officials said that immediately after the letter was sent, the council members stopped engaging with the US on the resolution or offering suggestions on the text.
“If they want to blame us for the reason this initiative failed, that’s their prerogative,” Margon said, “but attacking NGOs is a way to deflect criticism of their actions and their decisions, including what’s happening at the border.”
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US officials tell CNN the draft resolution was the product of a yearlong effort to overhaul the council, which the Trump administration said is biased toward Israel and includes members with egregious human rights records. Last year, Haley addressed the council in Geneva, threatening to end US membership unless significant changes were made.
The officials said parallel discussions at the UN in New York and Geneva failed to produce the kinds of revisions that would allow the US to remain in the council. As such, the US solicited cosponsors for a draft resolution to take before the General Assembly in New York. The draft incorporated the ideas of various members, the officials said.
The human rights groups’ letter to council members is one reason other countries did not sign on, the US officials said.
Margon says the NGOs were critical of the US decision to pivot away from overhaul efforts at the council’s headquarters in Geneva, which the groups considered more promising than the efforts Haley was taking in New York.
While US officials say they were blindsided by the group’s letter, Margon said the rights groups had been talking to Haley’s team for months about their concerns that trying revisions through a General Assembly resolution could weaken and undermine the body. Opposed to the resolution on those grounds, the rights groups sent their letter to council members, urging them not to support US efforts in the General Assembly.
Yes on reform, no on the tactic
We “agreed with the need for reform, but disagreed with the tactic and the process by which the US was trying to move,” Margon said, adding that the letter explained that position.
“The thing that’s so striking about (Haley’s) letter is her saying that we were trying to block negotiations,” Margon told CNN. “We were saying, ‘Do this in a way that doesn’t allow other countries to attack and tank the council. We have to do this in a smart way.'”
Unable to claim progress on restructuring, Haley, alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, announced on Tuesday that the US would withdraw its membership before the council session began this week.
On Thursday, the US nameplate at the council was taken down.
In her letter to the groups, Haley said the decision to withdraw from the “dysfunctional human rights body” does not “constitute a withdrawal from America’s fight for human rights.”
“The United States will continue to be a leader in calling for human rights for all people and in forcing international attention onto mass atrocities,” she later notes. “We are happy to work together with (nongovernment organizations) that share those goals but not with ones that undermine them.”
In response, Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, said President Donald Trump was “showing his complete disregard for the fundamental rights and freedoms the US claims to uphold.”
“While the Human Rights Council is by no means perfect and its membership is frequently under scrutiny, it remains an important force for accountability and justice,” said Shetty.