Nikki Haley: The occasional activist


Nikki Haley, U. S. ambassador to the U.N., at the United Nations Plaza in New York on March 6, 2017.

Trump’s U.N. ambassador promised to promote human rights. Then politics got in the way.

“I will never shy away from calling out other countries for actions taken in conflict with U.S. values and in violation of human rights and international norms,” Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor-turned-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, assured senators during her January 2017 confirmation hearing. It was a remark primed to set her apart from the new U.S. president and the rest of his administration, who have seemed more inclined to cut deals with the world’s autocrats than to lecture them for mistreating their people.

Haley has used her current job to make the defense of human rights part of her political identity. She has denounced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a coldblooded “war criminal,” warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin could never be a “credible partner” of the United States, organized U.N. Security Council sessions on human rights, and traveled to refugee camps to draw attention to civilian abuses. She has also strongly condemned the ongoing atrocities in Myanmar.

Yet critics say Haley, like many of her predecessors, is often inconsistent in her championing of human rights, and her strident “America First” rhetoric has rankled her foreign counterparts. The picture that has emerged is of a sometime crusader: one who seems to believe in the power of America’s moral voice, even in the era of Donald Trump, but who cannot be consistently relied on to use it.

When Haley is acting as a human rights advocate, she occupies a space the rest of the U.S. leadership has all but abandoned. Take what happened in September 2017. Saudi Arabia was fighting off a diplomatic offensive at the U.N. Human Rights Council led by the Netherlands, which wanted to establish an open-ended commission of inquiry probing atrocities in Yemen by the Saudi-led military coalition and the Houthi insurgents. David Satterfield, the acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, was reluctant to support the Dutch initiative, fearing American backing would chill U.S. relations with Riyadh. The Defense Department also opposed an open-ended investigation since the United States provides targeting advice to pilots in the Saudi-led coalition and refuels the bombers responsible for the majority of atrocities committed during the war.

Haley was the sole high-ranking U.S. official to recommend that the country vote in favor of the commission of inquiry; in the end, a compromise preempted a vote.

But her advocacy has been viewed as self-serving. After anti-government protests erupted in Iran in early January, Haley convened an emergency session of the Security Council to address the regime’s attacks on peaceful demonstrators.

Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, accused Washington of insincerity, and even France’s U.N. ambassador, François Delattre, told the council, “It is up to the Iranians, and to the Iranians alone, to pursue the path of peaceful dialogue.”

Yet Haley has been credited for drawing attention to abuses in parts of the world that the Trump administration has otherwise overlooked. In October, she was moved to tears when she visited camps for refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. Haley took a series of photos and presented them to South Sudan’s leader, Salva Kiir, warning that his government risked losing further U.S. aid if he did not allow humanitarian assistance into his country. When she came back from Africa, she was “eloquent in defense of the need to take care of the most vulnerable and the victims of these wars,” says Akshaya Kumar, the deputy U.N. director for Human Rights Watch.

Advocates say that while they appreciate Haley’s stance on such issues, they believe her positions are sometimes calculated to promote the White House’s goals, enhance her own political fortunes, and protect key allies, most notably Israel.

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