United States Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley announced on Tuesday, June 19 that the U.S. will withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) over allegations that the U.N. is chronically biased against Israel. The controversial decision leaves the U.S. without a seat in one of the most prominent international human rights organization. The withdrawal is unlikely to have a significantly tangible effect on U.S. or U.N. policy; however, it represents yet another example of the Trump administration estranging the U.S. from the international community and will harm the U.S.’s capacity to shape the international human rights agenda.
The U.S. threatened to withdraw from the council several times over the last year but finalized its decision in reaction to the U.N.’s position to the violent clashes in the Gaza Strip in May, which coincided with the anniversary of the Nakba, or “catastrophe” – referring to the period when Palestinians were forced out of Palestine in 1948 – as well as the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. The Israeli army killed dozens of Gazans and injured thousands more. The UNHRC responded by voting to investigate the incident and concluded that Israel used excessive force on peaceful Palestinian protesters. Adding to the U.S.’ displeasure, on June 14, the U.N. General Assembly voted – 120 to eight – to pass a resolution condemning Israel of “excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate” force against Gazans. The eight countries that opposed the resolution were the U.S., Israel, Australia, the Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Togo.
The UNHRC is a U.N. body that aims to defend human rights globally by investigating allegations of human rights violations. Its 47 members are elected to the council in staggered three-year terms. The U.N. General Assembly created the council in 2006 to replace the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), which had suffered a loss of legitimacy due to several of its members’ poor human rights records.
The U.S. has a track record of strained relations with the council. The George W. Bush administration initially withheld U.S. membership in the UNHRC when it was first created, citing similar concerns of bias against Israel and hypocrisy of member states that did not respect human rights. The U.S. only joined the council in 2009 under the Obama administration, which argued that working with the council from within would be a more effective means of tackling human rights than going it alone.
During Tuesday’s announcement, Haley explained, “[W]e 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.” The UNHRC responded on Twitter that the U.S. decision was “[D]isappointing, if not really surprising, news. Given the state of #HumanRights in today’s world, the U.S. should be stepping up, not stepping back.”
The U.S. decision is part of a wider trend of the Trump administration pulling the country out of international agreements. In May, Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal, estranging the U.S. from its European allies. He also revoked U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations and announced that the U.S. no longer partake in the Paris climate accords. The withdrawal from the UNHRC will likely be viewed as a continuation of the same isolationist policies.
While the UNHRC definitely has its shortcomings – it has overlooked major human rights violations by member countries like China, Russia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – the Trump administration has also undermined human rights by praising leaders with poor human rights records. In May, just weeks after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi won reelection, Trump met with him and praised him for having “done a tremendous job under trying circumstances” at maintaining security and cracking down on “terrorism,” according to Reuters. Trump also called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a “very talented man” at the landmark Singapore Summit earlier this month.
Ultimately, if the U.S. believes the UNHRC to be a biased and hypocritical body, it would have far more influence at setting the global human rights agenda if it retained its membership and tried to reform the organization from the inside. The council may be deeply flawed but it is one of the few international forums where human rights concerns can be addressed.