In a long-expected decision, the United States announced it was withdrawing from the United Nations Human Rights Council, the world body’s primary organ for promoting and protecting the rights of people worldwide. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, delivered comments on June 19 in the late afternoon from Washington, D.C., not taking any questions from reporters.
“The Human Rights Council has become an exercise in shameless hypocrisy — with many of the world’s worst human rights abuses going ignored and most serious offenders sit on the council sit in pious and self-righteous judgement of others with infinitely better records,” Pompeo said, his remarks posted on his Twitter page.
Haley followed with longer remarks, citing among other things the work her team has apparently done to fix the Council’s flaws. “For too long, the Human Rights Council has been a protector of human-rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias. Regrettably, it is now clear that our call for reform was not heeded.”
The US is halfway through a three-year term on the Council, which is based in Geneva, and had been threatening to withdraw if reforms were not made, particularly accusing the 47-member body of being anti-Israel.
The departure of the US from the Council comes immediately after President Trump gushed over his meeting with one of the cruelest rights abusers in the world, Kim Jong Un of North Korea. The US move also opens the door to more influence by China, which is exerting its growing international power throughout the UN system, a range of diplomats warn. The Trump administration’s action also leaves the Council with many other longstanding unresolved problems, including how to deal with a core of nations — a majority, in most instances — that routinely opposes democratic initiatives there.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement from his spokesman that Guterres would have “much preferred for the United States to remain in the Human Rights Council. The UN’s Human Rights architecture plays a very important role in the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide.”
On June 18, the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, spoke at the opening day of the Council’s 38th session, defending the body while signaling that America would withdraw over its seeming bias against Israel.
Johnson noted that the Council’s “dedicated agenda item focused solely on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is disproportionate and damaging to the cause of peace and unless things change, we shall move next year to vote against all resolutions introduced under Item 7.”
He added, “But I stress that that does not mean that we in the UK are blind to the value of this Council — including the work it could do on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict under the right agenda item. . . . “
The US has been unsatisfied with the Council from the start of the Trump administration, and efforts by numerous countries and nonprofit groups focused on human rights strove to address certain problems with the Council. Yet the US withdrawing was perceived by these parties as hardly the remedy.
Keith Harper, the last American ambassador to the Council and other institutions in Geneva, said in a prescient interview with PassBlue in March 2017 that substantial, real gains made in the Council in the Obama years would be jeopardized if the US were to withdraw. The Trump administration has never nominated a replacement for Harper, who was forced to resign in January 2017 in a clean sweep of the diplomatic corps.
“Over time, countries, particularly in what’s known as the like-minded group, who do not share our values and our ideas of what human rights are, they will then define human rights,” Harper said. “China and Russia and Cuba, Venezuela — they then are dramatically empowered. That would be unfortunate, because I think we have been able to show the world the power the Council can be, and the last thing we would want to see it revert back to a place where it turns human rights on its head.”
At the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, based in New York, Felice Gaer, the director, brought together human-rights leaders to send a letter on March 6 to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the time, asking him not to withdraw but rather to “redouble US engagement” and to appoint an American ambassador to Geneva to work more actively with the Council.
Nevertheless, for more than a year, Nikki Haley has been threatening, if more vaguely, to “go outside” the Council if reform requests were not met. At her confirmation hearing in January 2017, she mentioned several perceived problems with continued US membership but talked about “fixing” the system.
The American complaints, however, soon crystalized into two bottom-line issues: the closed election procedures that allowed regional groups of nations to choose candidates without an open vote in the 47-member Council, resulting in human-rights abusers getting seats; and the perennial focus on Israel in numerous resolutions grouped under what became known as Item 7 on the Council’s agenda.
Ultimately, the issue of resolutions criticizing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in occupied territories had become the make-or-break demand.
Two concurrent themes only hardened US resolve on the issue: the increasingly pro-Israeli foreign policy pursued by Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and some of the president’s most influential supporters, was capped in May by the choice of John Bolton as the president’s national security adviser.
Bolton, while serving as US ambassador to the UN and as a State Department official dealing with international organizations, kept the US out of the Council at its founding in 2006. He has always opposed US membership. (Under President Obama, the US joined the Council in 2009.)
On March 23 of this year, at the end of the Council’s winter session, Haley, leading the Trump charge, declared: “When the Human Rights Council treats Israel worse than North Korea, Iran and Syria, it is the Council itself that is foolish and unworthy of its name. It is time for countries who know better to demand changes. Many countries agree that the Council’s agenda is grossly biased against Israel, but too few are willing to fight it.”
It was another slap in the face of allies.
Haley had largely snubbed — then abandoned — a months-long effort led by the Netherlands, with other governments and human-rights organizations, to propose solutions to the impasse. A report was written in December 2017 by a conference of those participants. It suggested ways to reduce the number of resolutions on Israel, perhaps by combining them in an overall agenda item covering situations of special concern; it also offered possible steps toward reforming the Council’s electoral procedures.
All these ideas were more or less rejected by countries in the G77 bloc of developing nations, led most vocally by South Africa, which had begun to coordinate its human-rights policies with China, according to a Chinese news service report. Muslim-majority nations, stung by the Trump’s decision in December 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a move that rejected all international agreements and UN resolutions, joined the opposition to the proposed reforms.
“None of these initiatives have, as of yet, led to significant changes,” a Dutch official said in an interview with PassBlue in late March. “Although disappointing, we never expected that it would be easy to get quick fixes. However, we are committed to the process and will continue to look, in a transparent and constructive manner, at ways to improve the functioning of the Council.”
Now reformers must do this work without the power of the US behind them, and Americans will go down in UN history as being willing to weaken the Council severely in the interests of one country and one issue.
Barely 18 months in office, Trump and his political gurus, ignorant of the world and its people, and contemptuous of global engagement and the opinions of allies, have withdrawn a once-admired America from virtually every important international agreement and is working his way through UN agencies. In record time, the US has become perceived more often as a danger to international security and a wrecker of crucial consensus in a deeply fractured community of nations.
It is well known among Americans that Trump set out deliberately, with seeming no thought of the cost, to destroy the legacy of his predecessor, Barack Obama, a popular world figure willing to engage in cooperative diplomacy, however flawed some of his policies may appear in retrospect.
Trump’s vindictive trophies are many: he pulled the US out of the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change, a universally approved plan to save the planet from destructive runaway pollution. Most recently, he walked away from a landmark agreement on curbing Iran’s potential nuclear weapons agreement, a pact painstakingly negotiated with Iran by the US, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany as well as the European Union.
In 2017, the president abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership and undermined the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta. He has banned aid to the UN Population Fund, the largest organization working around the world in family planning and maternal health.
He quit Unesco, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which was supported by many American academics as well as Laura Bush, who gave a keynote address to the organization in 2003, after her husband, President George W. Bush, restored American membership after an earlier walkout that lasted 18 years.
Trump has disdained NATO, insulted powerful members of the G7 and sidelined South Korea, a long-time ally, in his rush to embrace the ruthless North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Trump has also refused to join a UN-led global compact to manage better the burgeoning movement of migrants. He is seeking to close the door to immigration, the movement of people that built the US over more than 300 years.
It is sadly ironic that on the day the US announced it was leaving the Human Rights Council, people across the world were recoiling in horror and grief at the spectacle of an American government taking several thousand children away from their mothers and fathers, who are desperate asylum seekers fleeing violence in Central America. US politicians, among them Republicans, are describing as “inhumane” and “evil” the virtual incarceration of children, with no promise they will be reunited with their families.
Trump continues to say all of these moves are Obama’s fault, prompting journalists to abandon neutrality and call this assertion another “lie.” The president reacts by saying that the media produce nothing but fake news and are the worst “enemies of the people.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.
The withdrawal of the US delegation to the UN from the Human Rights Council
is a strategic mistake. As President Johnson said “It is better to be in
the tent pissing out than out pissing in”. However, the withdrawal might
start a useful trend. As an NGO representative, I have participated in the
human rights bodies since the Human Rights Center moved from New York to
Geneva in the 1970s. I always felt that we could do without the
representatives of governments. The real human rights work was done by NGO
representatives, UN Secretariat, Independent Experts-Special Rapporteurs.
Government representatives gave long and repetitive speeches which slowed
things down. Except for a couple of years after Jimmy Carter was elected
President making human rights a priority, the US delegation has been no
better than the others. The US harped constantly about Cuba and called
into question economic and cultural rights. However it was not worse than,
let us say, Saudi Arabia. The UN is still structured around governments so
it is likely that we will have to put up with government representatives
in UN human rights work. To the extent that the US delegation has something
to say, it should continue to participate in a body which is a reflection
of the world as it is but which makes efforts to develop a more just and
harmonious world society. Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World
It seems that many of your writers are expressing opinions and spin, rather than reporting on the UN. The U.S. has been the world’s cash cow for far too long. Does anyone realize how much $21 trillion is? Do any of your writers know what the interest on $21,000,000,000,000 is? Our government did not accumulate this debt by making wise policy decisions. Give the pilot a chance, or we all crash together!