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Advocates Worry U.S. Withdrawal From UN Rights Body Empowers Despots

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nation Nikki Haley (left) with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in attendance announced her country's decision to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council on June 19.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nation Nikki Haley (left) with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in attendance announced her country's decision to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council on June 19.

Counterproductive. Short-sighted. Cynical.

Human rights groups and governments around the world were quick to use those and other adjectives in describing the decision by the United States to leave the United Nations' Human Rights Council.

The move, announced by U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley on June 19, has boosted concerns that the United States is retreating from its role as a leading international advocate for human rights and deals a blow to multilateralism on the heels of White House decisions to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate agreement, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.

"Forfeiting the U.S. seat on the UN Human Rights Council only serves to empower actors on the [Security] Council, like Russia and China, that do not share American values on the preeminence of universal human rights," a statement by 12 human rights groups including Freedom House, CARE, and Human Rights First said in reaction to the announcement.

Washington has regularly chided Beijing over political freedoms, detainee torture, and religious persecution, and challenged Moscow over the imprisonment of dissidents, curbs on free speech and assembly, unsolved killings in politically charged cases, and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

But it has also called out a number of other perceived rights offenders in the former Soviet Union, including Azerbaijan, Belarus, and several of the Central Asian republics.

"...[N]o other likeminded country seeking to occupy the United States' former seat can realistically match Washington's global diplomatic and political footprint. In short, without strategic U.S. engagement at the Council as a member, the U.S. loses a platform to influence the course of human rights globally for the better and the victims of human rights abuse globally will fall prey to the machinations of governments that will take advantage of this strategic vacuum," the joint statement added.

In making the announcement, Haley said that the "hypocritical and self-serving" body "makes a mockery of human rights." She lambasted the Geneva-based council for "its chronic bias against Israel" and lamented that its members include "persistent human rights offenders" like China.

Washington declined to join the council when it was first created in 2006 during the presidency of George W. Bush, though his successor, Barack Obama, opted for membership in 2009.

U.S. officials have long complained that the council focuses too much on Israel while ignoring rights violations in other countries.

'Wrong Side Of History'

Carl Bildt, a longtime diplomat who is currently co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledged that the council is "far from perfect" but chided the Trump administration saying that "to leave is to abandon even an ambition when it comes to promoting and protecting human rights."

Other critics were less diplomatic.

Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty said the move showed U.S. President Donald Trump's "complete disregard for the fundamental rights and freedoms the U.S. claims to uphold."

"The U.S. should urgently reverse this decision, which places it squarely on the wrong side of history. It is willfully choosing to undermine the human rights of all people everywhere, and their struggles for justice," he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that while it was true that the participation of some persistent rights violators such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela muddied the council's reputation, it still "plays a vital role in addressing serious rights abuses around the world."

"President Trump has decided that 'America First' means ignoring the suffering of civilians in Syria and ethnic minorities in Myanmar [Burma] at the United Nations," said HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth.

Some of the sharpest criticism came from Russia's UN mission, which said the United States had tried but failed to turn the council into an "obedient instrument for advancing their interests and punishing the countries it dislikes."

Behind a wave of criticism over Moscow's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 and its military support for the Syrian government in a civil war, Russia lost its seat on the council in 2016 but announced on June 20 that it was putting forward its candidacy for a seat on the 47-member body.

That tack appears in line with Russian President Vladimir Putin's efforts to boost Moscow's international relevance as relations with the United States have soured and combat international isolation set in after its invasion of Ukraine.

"Russia will continue its constructive work, aimed at maintaining equal dialogue and cooperation on human rights. It is with this goal in mind that Russia nominated its candidacy for elections to the composition of the HRO for 2021-2023," the Russian statement said.

Filling The Void

The Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body within the United Nations system responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe.

OutRight Action International, an LGBT rights group, worried that the absence of the United States from the council sends a message to other countries that it's acceptable to walk away from the system when it doesn't suit them to be there.

"For many people, the Human Rights Council and the United Nations as a whole are ports of last call when their own governments fail them.... Imagine what would happen if all countries walked away from the UN because of disagreements?" it said in a statement.

Florian Irminger, head of advocacy at the Geneva-based Human Rights House, told RFE/RL that the forfeiture of its seat was not surprising given the United States voted against the council's creation.

He says other countries will now have to fill the void left by Washington's departure, especially given the key behind the scenes work the United States did to push through initiatives such as the UN's special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus.

"Work in countries like Belarus, or in Crimea, the attention of the Human Rights Council on those...was very much the work of U.S. engagement," he said.

"The U.S. being out of the council means others will have to step up more. That means countries that believe in multilateralism, believe in raising human rights in a political body like the Human Rights Council, and believe that human rights are an actual issue, that you don't just raise human rights issues with your enemies, but it's actually about looking globally at how human rights are doing, including looking at yourself as a country," he added.