The United States withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday last week over what it called chronic bias against Israel and a lack of reform, a move activists warned would make advancing human rights globally even more difficult. Washington’s withdrawal is the latest US rejection of multilateral engagement after it pulled out of the Paris climate agreement and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has sought major changes on the council throughout her tenure, issued a blistering critique of the panel, saying it had grown more callous over the past year and become a “protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias.” She cited the admission of Congo as a member even as mass graves were being discovered there, and the failure to address human rights abuses in Venezuela and Iran.
“I want to make it crystal clear that this step is not a retreat from our human rights commitments,” she said during a joint appearance with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the department. “On the contrary. We take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.”
Haley slammed Russia, China, Cuba and Egypt for thwarting US efforts to reform the council. She also criticized countries which shared US values and encouraged Washington to remain, but “were unwilling to seriously challenge the status quo.”
“Look at the council membership, and you see an appalling disrespect for the most basic rights,” said Haley, citing Venezuela, China, Cuba and Democratic Republic of Congo. She did not mention Saudi Arabia, which rights groups pushed to be suspended in 2016 over killings of civilians in the Yemen war.
Among reforms the United States had pushed for was to make it easier to kick out member states with egregious rights records. Currently a two-thirds majority vote by the 193-member UN General Assembly is needed to suspend a member state.
Haley also said the “disproportionate focus and unending hostility towards Israel is clear proof that the council is motivated by political bias, not by human rights.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the U.S. decision.
The United States has long shielded its ally Israel at the United Nations. In citing what it says is bias against Israel, the administration of President Donald Trump could further fuel Palestinian arguments that Washington cannot be a neutral mediator as it prepares to roll out a Middle East peace plan. Washington also relocated its embassy to Jerusalem after recognising it as the capital of Israel, reversing decades of US policy.
The United States is half-way through a three-year term on the 47-member Geneva-based body and the Trump administration had long threatened to quit if it was not overhauled. Rights groups have criticised the Trump administration for not making human rights a priority in its foreign policy. Critics say this sends a message that the administration turns a blind eye to human rights abuses in some parts of the world.
It also comes as the United States faces intense criticism for detaining children separated from their immigrant parents at the US-Mexico border. UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein on Monday called on Washington to halt its “unconscionable” policy. “Given the state of human rights in today’s world, the US should be stepping up, not stepping back,” Zeid said after Haley announced the US withdrawal.
Reuters reported last week that talks on reforming the council had failed to meet Washington’s demands, suggesting the Trump administration would quit. “The Human Rights Council enables abuses by absolving wrongdoers through silence and falsely condemning those that committed no offence,” Pompeo said.
Diplomats have said the US withdrawal could bolster countries such as Cuba, Russia, Egypt and Pakistan, which resist what they see as UN interference in sovereign issues. Haley said the withdrawal “is not a retreat from our human rights commitments”.
Twelve rights and aid groups, including Human Rights First, Save the Children and CARE, warned Pompeo the US withdrawal would “make it more difficult to advance human rights priorities and aid victims of abuse around the world”. Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Program, said Trump’s “misguided policy of isolationism only harms American interests”.
The Human Rights Council meets three times a year to examine human rights violations worldwide. It has mandated independent investigators to look at situations including Syria, North Korea, Myanmar and South Sudan. Its resolutions are not legally binding but carry moral authority. When the Council was created in 2006, US President George W Bush’s administration shunned the body. Under President Barack Obama the United States was elected for a maximum two consecutive terms on the council by the UN General Assembly. After a year off, Washington was re-elected in 2016 for its current third term. UN officials said the United States would be the first member to withdraw from the council.
Haley said a year ago that Washington was reviewing its membership. The body has a permanent standing agenda item on suspected violations committed by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories that Washington wanted removed.
The council last month voted to probe killings in Gaza and accused Israel of using excessive force. The United States and Australia cast the only “no” votes.
“The UN Human Rights 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,” said Human Rights Watch executive director Ken Roth.
The US plans to announce its withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday, media reports said.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who had last year threatened to pull out of it given longstanding US complaints that it is biased against Israel, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, plans to announce the withdrawal at the State Department here at 5 p.m., Bloomberg reported, quoting two people familiar with the matter who requested anonymity.
On Monday, the Geneva-based council began its latest session. The announcement came a day after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein slammed US President Donald Trump’s immigration policy separating migrant children from their parents, The Times of Israel reported, also quoting sources. The Trump administration earlier pulled out of the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal.