Nikki Haley Takes a Hard Line on Human Rights as Trump Sends Mixed Signals

Jun 07, 2017

When U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley spoke before the UN Human Rights Council yesterday, she refused to commit the U.S. to staying or leaving the group.

Instead, she called on the body to alter how it operates, by eliminating what she called its anti-Israel bias and changing the regional bloc voting system that's allowed some of the world's worst human rights violators to join.

In an op-ed ahead of her address, Haley accused the council of "whitewash[ing] brutality" committed by its own members, citing as prime examples Venezuela—"whose government shoots protesters in the street," she wrote—and Cuba—"whose government imprisons thousands of political opponents." They can get away with such acts "because they have been elected to the UN Human Rights Council, whose members are—on paper—charged with 'upholding the highest standards' of human rights."

Haley is hardly the first to rebuke the council on these points, but her remarks carried a great deal of weight since an American withdrawal from the group—many fear—could cripple rights protections and let abusive members get away with even more.

At the same time, her crusade seems at odds with the actions of her own administration. For instance, Haley disparaged Saudi Arabia's human rights record on Tuesday, listing it as an elected council member that doesn't uphold the “highest standards” of human rights at home. Meanwhile, during the president's visit to Saudi Arabia last month, Trump administration officials signaled that they are willing to publicly overlook repression if it means strengthening economic and security ties. Plus, President Donald Trump himself has made friendly overtures to strongmen like Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In May, Trump told Duterte, who's accused of overseeing a government-sanctioned massacre of drug dealers, that he's doing an "unbelievable job" and invited him to the White House.

But Haley seems determined to beat this drum even if she's doing it alone. After all, it was her delegation that demanded a vote on Saudi Arabia's candidacy for the UN Commission on the Status of Women, rather than allow the kingdom—notorious for its ill treatment of women—to join by acclamation. While the move didn't derail Saudi Arabia's nomination, it was a step the U.S. had failed to take against oppressive regimes, notably, Iran in 2014, in the past.

A version of this story first appeared in Fortune's World's Most Powerful Women newsletter. Subscribe here.

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