GENEVA – U.S. President Donald Trump's ambassador to the United Nations on Tuesday berated the U.N.'s top human rights body, calling it a "forum for politics, hypocrisy and evasion" that allows rights abusers to whitewash their images and foes of Israel to criticize the Jewish state unfairly.
Nikki Haley, in the first visit to the Human Rights Council by America's top diplomat at the U.N., trained most of her focus on alleged abuses by Venezuela's government, a relatively easy target in that President Nicolas Maduro has increasingly run afoul of some of his Latin American neighbors.
Haley made only a passing reference to poor human rights in Saudi Arabia, a longtime U.S. ally that recently agreed to buy hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of U.S.-made weapons over the next decade. Many of the weapons could be used in the Saudi-led fight against rebels in impoverished, war-wracked Yemen.
After brief comments to the Human Rights Council, Haley used an academic forum in Geneva to pinpoint two reforms sought by the United States: the use of competitive elections to choose the council's 47 members and removal of Israel as a permanent fixture on its agenda — the only country in the world that is.
"Countries like Venezuela, Cuba, China, Burundi and Saudi Arabia occupy positions that obligate them to, in the words of the resolution that created the Human Rights Council, 'uphold the highest standards' of human rights," she said, alluding to some member countries. "They clearly do not uphold those highest standards."
Haley also dangled the possibility that the U.S. could quit the council.
"In case after case, it has been a forum for politics, hypocrisy and evasion, not the forum for conscience that its founders envisioned," she said at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. "If it fails to change, then we must pursue the advancement of human rights outside the council."
"America does not seek to leave the Human Rights Council; we seek to re-establish the council's legitimacy," she said. "The United States will not sit quietly while this body, supposedly dedicated to human rights, continues to damage the cause of human rights."
To make her case in the side event, Haley drew extensively from an Associated Press report in October that described the desperate medical saga of 3-year-old Ashley Pacheco, who nearly died from a staphylococcus infection in Venezuela's shattered medical system.
Haley noted Venezuela lacks medical supplies, including antibiotics needed to fight Ashley's infection, and cited the frenzied search for treatment by the girl's parents. They finally got the antibiotic, only after another child destined for it had died.
"Ashley eventually got out of the hospital ... she is one of the lucky ones. She lived," Haley said. "Others are not so lucky. In the last year, 11,500 babies died before their first birthday in Venezuela. Maternal mortality is up 65 percent."
Her tough words about Venezuela didn't come without a response.
Two silent protesters in the audience held up sheets of paper during her Graduate Institute address, one with the words "Fake Leadership" on it — an apparent critique of the Trump administration and an allusion to the president's repeated jibes about "fake news."
The American Civil Liberties Union responded by calling on the United States to "practice what it preaches" on human rights. The ACLU, in a statement, urged the United States to make human rights a priority at home, and then it could "begin to credibly demand the same of other countries abroad."
"It's hard to take Ambassador Haley seriously on U.S. support for human rights in light of Trump administration actions like the Muslim ban and immigration crackdowns."
Venezuela's ambassador in Geneva also struck back tartly with a "right of reply" under council rules.
The ambassador, Jorge Valero, denounced "the pathetic intervention from the ambassador of the North American empire this morning."
"What's unbelievable is that the United States empire — which has massacred entire nations with its preventable war and which practices torture against people arbitrarily held within illegal facilities — would declare itself against any nation," Valero said.
The harsh words came at the start of the council's June session — the second of three held each year. Earlier, U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein gave a wide-ranging speech that denounced suffering of both Palestinians and Jews, and called for greater access for rights experts to investigate alleged crimes in countries worldwide.
Haley called on the council to adopt "the strongest possible resolutions on the critical human rights situations in Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Belarus and Ukraine, and that it follow up to prevent further human rights violations and abuses in those countries."
Rights advocates say key stakes in this session include a possible resolution about Congo and the release of a U.N. human rights office review on how the council's recommendations on Israel and the Palestinian territories have been applied since 2009.