USA's baffling exit from UN Human Rights Council

USA's baffling exit from UN Human Rights Council

After threatening to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for some time, finally on June 19, the Trump administration declared its withdrawal. The UNHRC, an international body of 47 states with a rotating membership, is tasked with the protection of human rights and condemning states for violation of human rights. Possibly, even for casual observers of the global politics, this move by Mr Trump's Administration may not spring a surprise. After all, this administration has been isolationist on many pressing global matters and this is just one in that list. However, what this move would achieve is not clear and it does not seem that the US would achieve any of the things that Washington says it would.

Most observers of international relations would perhaps agree that even when a state does not like the agenda of a global organisation, that state is almost always better off being inside than outside. A state even as powerful as the US would have very little to influence UNHRC without having any official role in it. Rather curiously, the US has claimed that the retreat from the UNHRC would not undermine its unwavering commitment to human rights. It even the recalled the American leadership in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. However, the USA played that pivotal role in drafting the UDHR by being a part of a global initiative by not being out of it. Hence, the professed ability of Mr Trump's administration to influence institutional reform of UNHRC seems to be a long shot. In particular, this is evident from the reaction of its allies in the European Union and the UK who have on record labelled this retreat as a move to undermine US role on championing rights or regrettable.

There has also been some in the US administration (both current and in the past) who loathed the observations made during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process of the US by the UNHRC. However, the observations made in the UPR process are non-binding and have only morally persuasive value. And more importantly, it merely provides an opportunity for each state to declare what actions it has taken to improve its human rights situations and to fulfil its human rights obligations. It also allows civil society organisations to get a platform to bring to light the human rights violations in all member states of the UN. In its essence, the UNHRC is a deliberative body which has the power to discuss issues on human rights, conduct investigations into violation of human rights, and publish reports. Thus, through its UPR and other reports, the UNHRC increases transparency and cooperation in having a more informed dialogue about the state of human rights around the globe -- a role which is difficult to deny even for its detractors.

Again, this withdrawal from the UNHRC is a measure, in part, in opposition to what this body has to say on various policies pursued by Israel. Thus, this move by Mr Trump's administration would further corrode the position of the US as an honest broker in the negotiations between Israel and Palestine. While to label Israel as the worst violator of human rights may not be factually correct, the strong bias of Mr Trump's administration towards Israel would be evident from the simple fact of the administration persistently dragging its feet even when most of its allies have condemned Israel's actions.

The double-standard of Mr Trump's administration is also more than apparent when it criticises the membership of communist states in the UNHRC based on their human rights record but forgets the name of its allies such as Iraq, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia whose credentials on human rights is perhaps not much different. Again, while the UNHRC may have passed more resolutions on Israel in the last decade, it does not necessarily follow that it has ignored the grave violation of human rights in other countries. Hence, the US portrayal of the UNHRC members' bias against Israel, may equally be labelled as an epitome of the US's bias towards Israel. Indeed, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN has only in conjecture castigated the UNHRC's failure to "name and shame the perpetrators of the world's worst atrocities'" but conspicuously failed to name those omissions. In fact, the membership of the UNHRC is based on selection by the UN General Assembly on a geographical criterion and this is a common feature in many inter-governmental organisations.

Thus, at its worst, the administration's retreat from the UNHRC though predictable from an isolationist regime, is, at its worst, hypocritical wrongheaded and at its best futile or immature. Clearly, the US retreat is by no means an example of principled engagement in an international organisation most of which are imperfect but nonetheless are not the ones to be shunned because some of their actions may not suit your allies or you do not like some of the other members.


Md. Rizwanul Islam is an Associate Professor at Department of Law, North South University.

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