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US exits UN rights body: Principled, or another retreat?

Why We Wrote This

Under President Trump, the US has backed away from global institutions and agreements. Now its exit from the Human Rights Council, critics say, has deprived the group of a voice for needed reforms.

The United States nameplate at UN headquarters in Geneva adorns an unoccupied seat June 20, a day after the US announced its withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council.
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For decades the United States has championed individual rights and values around the world. But on Tuesday the US announced it was withdrawing from the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council. The world’s preeminent human rights body has been criticized for its biased treatment of Israel and for overlooking the violations of some of the world’s most oppressive dictatorships. Summing up the US position, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “The only thing worse than a council that does almost nothing to protect human rights is a council that covers for human rights abuses, and is therefore an obstacle to progress.” But critics say the US move will hurt most those the US has traditionally sought to defend, and remove a needed voice supporting reform on the council. “This is not about a hard-power security umbrella, but a moral security umbrella that so many around the world have come to count on,” says Melissa Labonte, an associate professor at Fordham University. “The council,” she adds, “is a significant forum for advancing American values and interests in seeing human rights safeguarded and advanced around the world.”

At the United Nations Human Rights Council, it’s known simply as Agenda Item 7.

Item 7 addresses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and rights abuses in Israel and by Israel in the adjacent occupied territories. It is the only item of business that appears automatically on the agenda of the 47-nation council, the world’s preeminent human rights body, year in and year out.

The biased treatment of Israel has drawn criticism and admonishments to act more evenhandedly from numerous international human rights groups and world leaders – including UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Beyond the case of Israel, these same critics have called on the Geneva-based council to address its other glaring shortcomings. These have included overlooking the violations of some of the world’s most oppressive dictatorships and even honoring some of the most flagrant abusers of human rights with seats on the council.

But it was not until Tuesday, when the United States announced its withdrawal from membership in the council, that any country – let alone a permanent member of the UN’s Security Council – had taken its frustrations with the human rights body to the extreme level of giving up and pulling out. That said, under President George W. Bush, the US withdrew from the council’s predecessor, the UN Human Rights Commission, citing similar issues.

The US decision Tuesday was hailed by some as a principled act proclaiming the Trump administration’s refusal to continue to bestow legitimacy on a flawed and unrepentant body through American participation.

“The only thing worse than a council that does almost nothing to protect human rights is a council that covers for human rights abuses, and is therefore an obstacle to progress and an impediment to change,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the State Department Tuesday.

Moral security umbrella

But for many others, the decision represents a further US retreat from its position of leadership in the global system of multilateral organizations and agreements – and from its decades-long standing as the champion of individual rights and values.

In this case, these observers add, the losers are the world’s oppressed, and the many thousands of rights advocates and local organizations around the world that have depended on America’s voice and support to stand up to tyrants and bullies.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, announcing the US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, addresses the press with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department, June 19, 2018.
Toya Sarno Jordan/Reuters
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“This is not about a hard-power security umbrella, but a moral security umbrella that so many around the world have come to count on over the last seven decades that the US has played this role of champion of human rights,” says Melissa Labonte, an associate professor and expert in multilateral peace operations and human rights promotion at Fordham University in New York.

Acknowledging the council’s faults, she nevertheless says the US absence will hurt most those the US has traditionally sought to defend. “The first loser here is human rights,” Dr. Labonte says. “The council is not the only table out there, but it is a significant forum for advancing American values and interests in seeing human rights safeguarded and advanced around the world.”

For the Trump administration, however, US participation in a human rights organization that honors the likes of China, Congo, Cuba, and Venezuela with membership is in effect bestowing legitimacy on some of the world’s most flagrant rights abusers.

As Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, asserted in announcing the withdrawal at the State Department Tuesday afternoon, “American participation is the last shred of credibility that the council has. But that is precisely why we must leave.”

Ambassador Haley insisted that the US will continue to promote human rights outside the council, and to lead like-minded countries in efforts to advance values of individual freedoms.

Change from within?

But for many nongovernmental human rights organizations – and indeed for many individual rights advocates who have learned over recent decades to rely on American backing – the US pullout is short-sighted. It’s an action that will remove from the table a global power that traditionally has been one of the foremost advocates of the world’s oppressed, from women and minorities to political dissidents.

The advocates’ resounding message: Yes the Human Rights Council is flawed, but the US can do a lot more to improve global respect for rights from within the tent than outside it.

The US withdrawal “only serves to empower actors on the council, like Russia and China, that do not share American values on the preeminence of universal human rights,” Freedom House and 11 other international rights organizations said in a letter to Haley and Secretary Pompeo. “Without strategic US engagement at the council as a member, the US loses a platform to influence the course of human rights globally for the better.”

Others say it is the US fixation on defending Israel and not in fact any unwillingness by the council to address other cases of rights abuse that explains the US withdrawal.

“The Trump administration’s withdrawal is a sad reflection of its one-dimensional human rights policy: defending Israeli abuses from criticism takes precedence above all else,” says Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch in New York. He says the council has “played an important role in such countries as North Korea, Syria, Myanmar, and South Sudan, but all Trump seems to care about is defending Israel.”

Part of wider trend

But some supporters of the US withdrawal said the council’s evident bias against Israel, while a key concern, was just one reason justifying the US action.

Citing Haley’s depiction of the council as a “cesspool of political bias,” former Pentagon official Frank Gaffney, now president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, says the council remains “riddled with human rights violators, rabidly hostile towards Israel, and reliant on US subventions. It’s high time we’re outta there.”

Officials at the UN in New York say the US decision is regrettable – and one that Secretary-General Guterres in particular is unhappy to see. But some said the decision would have been a bigger shock to the UN system and more of a clarion call for the cause of human rights if it were not coming from a US administration that has shown a broad disdain for multilateral organizations and actions.

“This is part of a wider trend on the part of the US that goes well beyond the Human Rights Council and UN bodies and which across the board raises the question, ‘Where do you get the most impact – from the inside working with other like-minded nations, or from the outside acting alone?’ ” says one official who requested anonymity to speak candidly on the issue.

Pointing to the US withdrawal under Trump from the Paris Climate Accords, the Iran nuclear deal, and heightened US friction with allies as seen at the recent G7 summit, the official adds, “You could make the case for each action individually, but if you put it all together you have to wonder what it says about the direction of the US.”

Israel loses vigorous defender

Fordham’s Labonte says that one irony of the US decision is that Israel also comes out a loser, as it will no longer have at the council a strong defender that she says has made a difference in its treatment since the US joined the council in 2009.

By some measures, she says, “hostility and animosity towards Israel” have fallen by roughly half. For example, she notes that resolutions focused on Israel’s human rights record have fallen from around 40 percent of the council’s annual totals in 2009 to about 20 percent last year.

It’s not clear who will step in to defend Israel so vigorously, Labonte says. But she adds that the US absence from the human-rights forum raises the same question more broadly.

“Others will now have to come up with a strategy for how to fill that gap,” she says. “But right now, it’s not clear who that will be or if anyone can or will.”

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