On June 19, 2018, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced the withdrawal of the United States from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Despite listing grievances about the council’s protection of human rights abusers and bias against Israel as reasons for its withdrawal, evidence from the Trump Administration’s track record and from the council’s achievements and mandates belies such objections. Its disregard for international human rights and forceful protections of Israel’s abuses indicates that Trump’s team is more motivated by advancing its own narrow political agenda than promoting human rights.
Such a disengagement from the human rights body is not new for the United States. For three years, after the council was formed in 2006 during President George W. Bush’s administration, it boycotted the council over admitting nations with questionable human rights records. The United States only joined under President Barack Obama, in 2009, reasoning that it could better influence the council’s work from the inside.
Tasked with upholding human rights around the world, the UN Human Rights Council is based in Geneva, with 47 members states from the United Nations elected by the UN General Assembly for a three-year term. Each region of the globe is allocated a certain number of seats based on geographic distribution, thus resulting in high representation from Africa and Asia (with 13 seats each, compared to eight for Latin America, seven for Western Europe and others, and six for Eastern Europe).
The recent move by the Trump Administration to leave the council comes as no surprise, as Haley has repeatedly attacked the UNHRC and threatened to withdraw from it over alleged anti-Israel bias. However, this is the first time since the council’s creation that a sitting member leaves voluntarily. The only other member state that left—though because it was forced to—was in 2011, when Libya was suspended by a vote in the General Assembly following the Libyan government’s crackdown on unarmed protesters.
Are the criticisms and grievances presented against the council legitimate? What are the real motivations behind the US withdrawal? And what are the implications of this move for the council and for the US role in supporting human rights globally?
The Council’s Track Record vs. US Accusations
In her announcement, alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Ambassador Haley cited the alleged double standard of the council as the main reason behind American withdrawal, calling it a “hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.” She denounced the council as “a protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias.” Pompeo called out UNHRC members China, Cuba, and Venezuela for their “authoritarian governments with unambiguous and abhorrent human rights records,” while Haley named the Congo, Iran, and Egypt. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia, another current member on the council and one of the world’s top human rights abusers, was not mentioned by Trump Administration officials.
Regarding Israel, both officials condemned what they called the UN body’s “chronic” and “continued and well-documented” bias and “unending hostility” toward Israel, and accused the council of “politicizing and scapegoating of countries with positive human rights records.” Vice President Mike Pence could not miss the opportunity to chime in, tweeting that “Today the US took a stand against some of the world’s worst human rights violators …. For years, the UNHRC has engaged in ever more virulent anti-American, and anti-Israel invective and the days of U.S. participation are over.”
However, in its 12 years of existence, the UNHRC has made positive contributions to the cause of human rights on various issues and in different parts of the world, including progress on promoting LGBT rights, gender issues, freedom of religion, and freedom of press, ending torture and human trafficking, and investigating regime abuses and human rights violations in places like Eritrea, Belarus, Burundi (while it was a member), North Korea, Myanmar, and South Sudan. Additionally, while no action has been possible at the UN Security Council regarding Syria due to political polarization, the UNHRC was able to establish a commission of inquiry to document human rights abuses in the country.
Moreover, the council meets three times a year and has instituted a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of human rights records for all UN member states, thus increasing scrutiny of country-specific situations and holding states accountable. The council has also established mandates for the involvement of independent experts and monitors who have successfully promoted human rights and protected against abuses on the ground.
With regard to membership, three quarters of the council’s member states have records that meet the “free” and “partly free” standards set by Freedom House, while countries perpetrating human rights abuses (like Sudan, Syria, and Belarus) fail to become members. Moreover, General Assembly resolution A/RES/60/251 requires member states, when electing members to the UNHRC, to take into account each candidate’s role in and commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights. It also compels elected members to the council to uphold the protection of human rights, submit to a review under the UPR, and fully cooperate with the council.
The UNHRC does in fact have a permanent agenda item: Item 7, which focuses on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. The United States would like this to be removed. Through its illegal military occupation, Israel commits daily violations of the basic rights and freedoms of an entire population and refuses, repeatedly, to cooperate with the UNHRC’s missions of inquiry regarding Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The claims by members of the Trump Administration that Israel upholds human rights are regularly disproven by UN fact finding missions, independent inquiries, and various Israeli and international human rights organizations. Israel therefore should warrant special scrutiny, like any other country with similar policies. Realistically, Israel’s occupation (and siege) of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem since 1967––which constitutes the world’s longest military occupation––seems to be permanent. Israel’s policies and practices thus deserve being listed as a permanent item on the UNHRC’s agenda.
Moreover, the so-called “Israel bias” is not, in fact, accurate. Between 2008 and 2014, the top five countries receiving UPR recommendations for their repressive policies were Cuba, Iran, Egypt, North Korea, and Vietnam, with Israel ranking sixth. Nevertheless, and even without a permanent agenda item regarding Palestine and Israel, Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights are what drive the UNHRC’s focus; as such, resolutions against Israel are likely to continue either way through this international mechanism, until Israel ceases all violations of Palestinian human rights.
The UNHRC has received criticism over the years from several organizations and countries, particularly over its admission, as members, of countries with records of egregious human rights abuses. While it is not perfect and could benefit from implementing reforms and addressing power politics, especially in holding its members accountable, the UNHRC remains an important mechanism to uphold human rights around the world. Indeed, it is the primary international institution dedicated to human rights.
The Real Motivations of the Trump Administration
While the Human Rights Council certainly needs to enact reforms and address the membership of human rights violators, these are clearly not the reasons for the United States’ withdrawal. This has been made evident through President Trump’s dealings with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Philippines, and North Korea (to name a few) and by his praise of dictators and criminals—he recently called Kim Jong-Un “a very talented man,” without any mention of North Korea’s human rights offenses. The Trump Administration’s approach undoubtedly holds no regard for human rights and largely ignores human rights abuses in its foreign policy.
The real motivations behind the United States’ withdrawal from the UNHRC are threefold. First, this move is the latest in Trump’s “America First” approach. It embodies the administration’s rejection of multilateral engagements and disregard for international agreements—and the UN system altogether. The trend includes pulling out of the Paris Agreement on climate action, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership as well as threatening UN agencies repeatedly. Although Trump and his supporters consider such measures as advocating for Americans and American interests, the actual result will likely further diminish US global standing and role in promoting human rights.
Second, the withdrawal is more likely a move aimed at protecting Israel’s human rights violations than holding human rights abusers accountable. The Trump Administration has explicitly defended Israel’s violations and promoted and implemented extremist policies—likely dictated by Israel—that contravene international law. The US retreat from the UNHRC comes only one month after the council voted to investigate Israel’s killings of Palestinian protesters in Gaza and accused Israel of using excessive force, a vote that only the United States and Australia opposed. Nevertheless, even if the United States’ request to remove Item 7 from the UNHRC’s permanent agenda were to be implemented, it would not likely result in less scrutiny of Israeli violations.
The US defection, however, creates a way to discredit the council altogether and undermine its work, allowing Israel to ignore it even further. This is also likely a strategic move by Nikki Haley to garner political capital, especially among influential pro-Israel donors and organizations, in preparation for her presidential bid in 2020 or 2024. In fact, it gained her high praise from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, the move to defend Israel’s abuses and put its interests above the principles of international human rights is a short-sighted one: it abandons longstanding US values, jeopardizes US interests and security, and pushes the limits of international and domestic tolerance of the Trump Administration.
The third reason behind Washington’s withdrawal from the UNHRC likely emanates from a desire to safeguard Trump’s ego. The announcement came one day after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein slammed the Trump Administration’s treatment of immigrant families at the US-Mexico border and policy of separating children from their parents, calling it “unconscionable.” This criticism of Trump’s immigration policies by a UN agency likely triggered the president to further isolate the United States from the international system and universal norms and may have been the last straw.
The Implications of US Withdrawal
The Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council represents another retreat of the United States from the world stage and US global leadership. The decision is counter to US values and commitments to human rights as well as to national security interests of the United States. By ceding this important international platform, the Trump Administration is leaving a vacuum in promoting and upholding human rights globally. This also signals a shift in US priorities and values.
By being on the outside, the United States is less likely to have a voice in discussions related to human rights atrocities and yields its influence in this arena. Even worse, this may leave the door open to other non-democratic powers, like China and Russia, to assume larger roles and additional influence in the council. At the end of the day, the United States simply needs to be involved if it wants to make a significant change. No other country has the global and political leverage to exert pressure to promote and protect human rights.
The US withdrawal essentially denotes the dismissal of the council’s mission by the world’s largest power, thus weakening the council and undermining its work and the respect for human rights worldwide. As an instrument of international law, the UNHRC is the premier body responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights. Its disregard and marginalization serve to erode those very rights and laws. For example, the Trump Administration’s decision would further enable Israel to refuse cooperation with the council and its missions of inquiry in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and would give Israel even more support in its chronic rejection of international law and UN resolutions.
It is no secret that the UN Human Rights Council could consider certain reforms and examine its membership list, but US withdrawal from the UN body will likely roll back rather than help the cause of human rights. It would also encourage repressive regimes to dismiss the council’s work and bypass accountability for human rights violations.