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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reacts during the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in Bonn, Germany, February 16, 2017. Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images
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Tillerson’s Shrewd Ultimatum to UN Human Rights Council: Reform or We Withdraw

Rather than staying on the deeply corrupt council as it stands, or leaving it immediately, the Secretary of State has opted to pressure the UN into reforms

Yair Rosenberg
March 14, 2017
Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reacts during the G20 foreign ministers' meeting in Bonn, Germany, February 16, 2017. Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

In 2006, the United Nations created the Human Rights Council, intended to replace its corrupt Human Rights Commission. The Commission had been infamous for its all-star membership of abusive dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, who used the body not to protect human rights, but to protect their violations of them. The Human Rights Council was meant to change all that. But on the eve of its opening, The New York Times called on President George W. Bush to reject the council, charging that its purported reforms had been “so watered down that it has become an ugly sham, offering cover to an unacceptable status quo.”

The United States did not join the council, and the Times predictions proved prescient. Two years later, Rhodes Scholar and future Obama administration official Ronan Farrow would call for the council to be abolished due to the rampant abuses of its members and its obsession with Israel to the exclusion of all other human-rights violators. The following year, the Obama administration tried a different tack and instead joined the council in an effort to salvage the body through engagement. Like its predecessor’s boycott, however, this policy was not particularly successful. To date, the council has condemned Israel more than all other countries combined, even as horrors have continued to unfold in Syria, and abuses have proliferated everywhere from North Korea to Saudi Arabia, a fact ruefully noted by Obama’s own U.N. ambassador Samantha Power.

Since the inauguration, the Trump administration has been grappling with what to do about the council, mindful of the failed policies of both of its predecessors. Critics of the council are divided: Israeli centrist party leader Yair Lapid is visiting Washington to lobby for the U.S. to cut ties with the body, even as U.N. Watch, an NGO which has cataloged the council’s corruption since its inception, testified before Congress that the U.S. would better assist Israel by remaining on it and fighting back.

Today, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opted to split the difference: He effectively issued an ultimatum to the council—calling on it to reform or lose U.S. membership and funding—by making the case in a letter to human-rights groups that was leaked to the press. Reports Foreign Policy:

Tillerson, in his letter to the U.N. advocates and human rights groups, said that while the United States “continues to evaluate the effectiveness” of the Council, it remains skeptical about the virtues of membership in a human rights organization that includes states with troubled human rights records such as China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

“We may not share a common view on this, given the makeup of the membership,” Tillerson told the organizations, who have urged continued U.S. membership. “While it may be the only such organization devoted to human rights, the Human Rights Council requires considerable reform in order for us to continue to participate.”

…For the time being, Tillerson wrote, the U.S. will participate in the ongoing session of the Human Rights Council, to “reiterate our strong principled objection to the Human Rights Council’s biased agenda against Israel.”

“Our aim is to fix the organization,” the Tillerson aide told FP.

The ploy shows promise. By leveraging the Obama administration’s investment in the UNHRC, Tillerson shrewdly seeks to compel the body to reform. After eight years of Obama-era engagement, the council now relies on the U.S. and can ill afford to take it or its largess for granted. This gives Tillerson significant bargaining power that he appears willing to use.

Of course, whether the often chaotic and contradictory Trump administration apparatus can effectively shepherd such a policy through to fruition remains to be seen. As such, future developments at the U.N. Human Rights Council may serve as a barometer of the Trump administration’s seriousness, not just the United Nations.’

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.