Commentary Human Rights

How Nikki Haley’s Ambassador Appointment Threatens the Spirit and Intent of the UN

Gillian Kane

If former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's track record is any guide, we can anticipate she will advance the Trump administration’s ambition to eviscerate access to the full range of reproductive choices, both at home and globally.

Lost in the outrage over President Donald Trump’s reinstatement and expansion of the “global gag rule” last week was former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s induction as the new United States Ambassador to the United Nations. As Trump’s ambassador, the harm her term will have on women’s sexual and reproductive rights has yet to play out. But if her track record is any guide, we can anticipate she will advance the Trump administration’s ambition to eviscerate access to the full range of reproductive choices, both at home and globally.

“I am strongly pro-life,” she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, “so anything we can do to keep [women] from having abortions, or to keep them from not knowing what is available, I will support.” Legislating ignorance is precisely the point of the global gag rule, which blocks U.S. foreign aid to groups that provide information and referrals for abortion care.

Presenting her credentials to the UN last week in New York, Haley issued brief introductory remarks—or, more accurately, she issued a general’s salvo of war: “For those who don’t have our back, we’re taking names, we will make points to respond to that accordingly.” This swagger, we now know, is a hallmark of the Trump administration. But a bullish entry into the halls of the United Nations is cause for alarm, especially for nations and advocates concerned with women’s rights.

The Trump administration has announced it will soon issue an executive order to significantly reduce—“at least a 40 percent overall decrease”—the United States’ contribution to the UN. The United States is the single largest financial contributor to the UN; in 2015, it provided 22 percent of its total budget. The United Nations does much more with this kind of funding than send peacekeepers into conflict zones. It also provides oversight and protection for human rights, including women’s rights, children’s rights, and LGBTQ rights. Last year, after a charged battle, the UN Human Rights Council created a new independent expert to investigate rights violations and discrimination against LGBTQ people. This groundbreaking position was enabled by the United States’ strong vocal support.

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Trump’s mandate isn’t about saving money, but ideology. The administration’s vague criteria for defunding aid to UN agencies will be based on those who “oppose important United States policies.” What these policies are is unclear, but we can wager a guess. One of the agencies under review is the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which oversees maternal and reproductive health programs. UNFPA has frequently been the target of Republican opprobrium. Indeed, in 1984, the same year that Reagan issued the global gag rule, social conservatives began agitating against U.S. funding to UNFPA. Reagan quickly blocked U.S. contributions, which Presidents Clinton and Obama then restored when they came into office. UNFPA provides essential support in countries with weak health systems and infrastructure. It addresses concerns of youth and violence against women, and promotes information on access to contraceptives, comprehensive sexuality education, and yes, where legal, abortions.

The Trump administration has also proposed a second UN-related executive order, the “Moratorium on New Multilateral Treaties.” This order will determine which UN treaties the United States should leave. Included for review are the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Odd choices, since the United States has never ratified either.

But the intent is clear. The Trump administration, led by Haley, who has no foreign policy experience, wants to not just disable the work of the UN, but also undermine progressive treaties and resolutions that protect women. Certainly that’s the way the anti-choice movement, which has cheered Haley’s appointment, has interpreted events.

To be clear, the work of the UN on human rights is fragile and constantly under threat. Defending and promoting women’s rights and LGBTQ rights with 193 member states is always a fraught process. Still, under President Barack Obama, the United States, often in coalition with other progressive countries, was a forceful voice to counter conservative nations who would argue that female genital cutting, or discrimination against gay people, was their cultural prerogative. Haley’s positions on women’s rights, and her hostile attitude toward the UN, are a disturbing break from her immediate predecessor, Samantha Power. Power, who while notably silent on abortion, was outspoken on LGBTQ and women’s rights, and a strong advocate of the United States’ active engagement in the UN.

The Trump administration would do well to remember that the UN was formed directly after World War II to address atrocities and genocide, and specifically to protect people against their own governments.

The Trump administration is a direct threat to the spirit and intent of the United Nations.

The UN must not be cowed either by Haley’s intimidating bluster, nor that of her boss in the White House. UN mechanisms to protect human rights are an essential tool to respond to governments that repress their own people. Women, children, and LGBTQ people are vulnerable here in the United States and globally. UN member states must act immediately to protect their most basic human rights before the Trump administration can do damage.

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