UNITED NATIONS — U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Tuesday that human rights violations have triggered conflict in Syria, stifled dissent in Burundi and led to repression in Myanmar — and the next international crisis could come from North Korea, Iran or Cuba where human rights are widely disregarded.
But Russia and China disputed her contention that human rights violations are a main driver of conflicts. And Human Rights Watch questioned the Trump administration's decision to focus on human rights at the U.N. Security Council in light of its own actions.
The United States holds the U.N. Security Council presidency this month and Haley was determined to hold a meeting to focus on the importance of human rights to international peace and security. It took place Tuesday after the U.S. addressed a key objection from Russia, China and other council members, and was the first meeting solely on human rights.
The United States initially wanted the debate under a new agenda item for the council entitled "Human Rights and International Peace and Security" — which would mean that item could be raised again and again in the council. But many council members didn't want the U.N.'s most powerful body, which is charged with ensuring international peace and security, to also focus on human rights.
So in a compromise, the U.S. Mission agreed to hold the meeting under an old agenda item: "Maintenance of international peace and security," with a focus on "human rights and prevention of armed conflict." That still didn't leave at least half a dozen council members happy, which was reflected in their statements.
Russia's deputy U.N. Ambassador Evgeny Zagaynov said the Security Council has no mandate to consider human rights which are discussed elsewhere at the U.N.
He objected to the U.S. contention that rights violations are "a main precondition for armed conflict" and to its assertion that protecting human rights is "a key instrument" to prevent conflict.
"Indeed prevention and settlement of armed conflicts are the main prerequisites for correcting human rights situations, and not vice versa," he said.
China's U.N. Ambassador Liu Jieyi never mentioned the words human rights and dismissed the U.S. statement that rights violations cause conflicts.
China is committed to addressing the root causes of conflicts, he said, and they include "extreme poverty and balanced development, shortage of resources and ethnic and tribal conflicts."
But Haley warned the council that if it fails to take human rights violations and abuses seriously, "they can escalate into real threats to international peace and security."
"The Security Council cannot continue to be silent when we see widespread violations of human rights," she said. "Why would we tell ourselves that we will only deal with questions of peace and security, without addressing the factors that bring about the threats in the first place?"
"We are much better off acting on the front end, standing for human rights before the absence of human rights forces us to react," she said.
But Akshaya Kumar, the deputy U.N. director at Human Rights Watch, said that "unless the United States is prepared to seriously address human rights abuses committed by its allies — like Saudi Arabia and Iraq — a theoretical debate about human rights issues at the Security Council won't improve the council's work."
"If the Trump administration wants to burnish its reputation on rights it should address problems at home such as its discriminatory travel ban on people from six Muslim majority countries," she said.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the council that "human rights concerns are intrinsic to maintaining peace and security and essential to informing Security Council deliberations and decision-making" — especially to avert mass atrocities.
He stressed that "the issue today is not that human rights violations undermine every aspect of our shared values and common work, but rather how the United Nations responds."