US withdraws from UN Human Rights Council

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

June 22, 2018

US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced this week that the United States was withdrawing with immediate effect from the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC). Charged with monitoring and reporting on the state of human rights around the world, the Council has long been a target of the Trump administration, which sees the organization as unfairly and consistently singling out Israel for criticism. The United States is the only western country not to be a member of the HRC, and only one of four countries in the world, along with Iran, North Korea, and Eritrea, to have completely broken off from the organization.

The move has come under serious scrutiny across the region, with many observers, including Arab News’ Zaid Belbagi, expressing concerns about what they see as the US ‘shirking its responsibility to lead’: “A worrying trend has developed whereby the US is actively shirking its responsibility to lead, whilst readily seeking to undo its commitment to freedom, liberty and democracy. The American departure is significant…. With over a year remaining on its term, the US has removed itself from weighing in on key issues that could affect its allies, especially in building important coalitions to tackle major human rights abuses…. As with the Paris Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal and the fiasco at the G-7, the US has brought into question its central role in underpinning the post-1945 international order….  [T]he current White House has displayed a growing willingness to intentionally damage these central tenets of the rules-based international system.”

In a recent editorial, the Khaleej Times staff suggested that by withdrawing from the council, the United States is placing Israel’s interests ahead of those of the international community, and, more important, it will likely cede ground to China’s quest for global leadership: “The council may not be perfect, but it still remains an important force in the implementation of justice and has a decent track record with regards to investigating specific human rights abuses and norm setting. It has played a constructive role whenever debates by big powers ran into trouble at the Security Council…. The emergence of a Chinese leadership in this scenario cannot be ignored, though it will not augur well, as Beijing’s underlying aim is to make it hard for the council to investigate the internal affairs of individual countries. The move to quit reinforces Trump’s decision to advance Israel’s agenda on the world stage. But the council will continue to debate Gaza and Israeli atrocities. There will be more resolutions on Israel, and more votes.”

Writing for the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News, Mustafa Aydin interprets the move as a symptom of the continuing erosion of ‘western cohesion’ and the march towards a new international system: “Whether it will eventually lead to a new international system with more countries sharing the burden and be equally responsible for its continuation, or would only bring the end of U.S. global leadership with accusations of unreliability as an ally is open to debate. What is certain is that Trump has opened the bottle and let the genie out. We will have to live and see the results. My only hope is that Trump’s sort of unilateralism will not lead to international chaos, worldwide protectionism and trade wars, which would inevitably end in economic depression and eventually real wars if unchecked.”

Accepting the fact that the council was likely in need of reform, the National’s editorial staff expresses concern regarding the potential impact  the weakening of the organization and ‘the shredding of global norms’ may have on the most vulnerable populations around the world: “The US decision to pull out of the United Nations Human Rights Council amid claims of an anti-Israeli bias could be seen merely as President Donald Trump’s latest act of multilateral sabotage. But this move will have grave and lasting consequences. It will further de-fang an already imperfect institution, embolden those who would wish it to fail and imperil the world’s most vulnerable and persecuted citizens…. The Trump administration’s vocal departure from the UNHRC legitimizes Israel’s violence and weakens an institution which can only be as strong as the sum of its parts. The body might have been in need of reform but it now risks being entirely de-fanged. This is Mr. Trump’s ‘America First’ policy projected onto the world stage. By dismantling a carefully crafted global order, he further endangers the world’s most vulnerable people.”

The US decision has been greeted with glee by some Israeli politicians and commentators. This sentiment was clear in a recent Jerusalem Post editorial which asserted that “The United States is to be applauded for its moral decision on Tuesday to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council, a politically biased body that has passed more resolutions against Israel than against any other country, including heinous human rights abusers, such as Iran, Syria and the Palestinian Authority…. The US and Israel have repeatedly pointed to the HRC’s relentless stream of resolutions against Israel’s policies, but Haley noted that it had consistently failed to condemn actual flagrant human rights abuses by countries from Venezuela and South Sudan to Cuba, Congo and Cambodia…. Let’s hope the US decision triggers a reassessment by the UNHRC of its mission and a real change in its review of human rights violations around the world in which Israel is not the focus.”

Jeff Dunetz, in an op-ed for the ultra-conservative Arutz Sheva, talks up the prospects of US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley as a potential presidential candidate and singles her out for “show[ing] herself to be a powerful take-no-prisoners advocate for the United States. She has strongly condemned the UN for its anti-Semitism, Russia for its support of Syria’s attacks on its civilians, China over Korea, just to name a few examples. Nikki Haley showcases the fact that under Donald Trump the U.S. has a foreign policy with some backbone. Make no mistake about it, she constantly reminds the UN that the United States makes its own foreign policy and no international body can tell us what to do.”

However, as Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren points out, there are some in Israel who, even though they agree, in principle, with the decision to withdraw, fear that the US absence from the UN Human Rights Council will make it more difficult to defend Israel at the UN: “Foreign Ministry officials told Channel 10 that America’s absence would make it much more difficult to block anti-Israel initiatives at the council. In the past, they argued, the US, while alone in defending Israel, could at least exert some influence, for example with regards to the election of a new high commissioner for human rights or working to block the publication of a blacklist of Israeli companies operating in the West Bank. Just as Israeli diplomats weren’t very happy about the US and Israel quitting UNESCO — despite their anger over many anti-Israel resolutions passed there — they would not necessarily rejoice over Netanyahu cutting ties with the Human Rights Council, either.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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