The US abdicates a key role at UN Human Rights Council

The US abdicates a key role at UN Human Rights Council

In another sign of its abdication of global leadership, the US has decided to withdraw from the UN human rights council, citing the latter’s hostility to Israel and favorable treatment to regimes with unsavory human rights records. The US now joins Eritrea, Iran, and North Korea as the only nations that are not members.

The UN Human Rights Chief called the move “disappointing, if not really surprising, news”, while also advocating that the US take a greater leadership role.

After withdrawing from the Paris climate accords and Iran nuclear deal, launching trade disputes with European and North Atlantic allies and questioning the principles of NATO membership, the Trump administration does not appear to be willing to do so.

New levels of US disengagement

The move comes after former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gutted key departments within the State Department and the new National Security Advisor John Bolton, also a former UN ambassador, has expressed deep criticism of the UN and its political bias for decades, claiming that the US does not need a ‘higher judge’ of its performance. In short, the new national security leadership has decided that the US can decide for itself whether or not it is breaking or in line with human rights standards, and that an international organization with an alternate agenda will not be allowed to preach its values to Washington.

While this is not a stark change from previous administrations, the level to which the Trump administration is willing to disobey international institutions and the global post-war order is cause for alarm. The decline in multilateralism is a sharp trend but the US has previously shown a willingness not to adhere to UN proclamations on human rights. This ultimately sends a message to authoritarian states and flawed democracies around the world that the UN will not act in your best interests but rather violate your sovereignty on a recurrent basis.

The Council’s future under the shadow of illiberalism

The UN human rights council has been at odds with US policy, namely in the Middle East, for the past decade. The principal point of contention has been Israel, one of Washington’s staunchest allies and aid recipients in the region, yet a nation subject to frequent human rights inquiries by both Western and regional governments. In her speech marking the announcement, ambassador Nikki Haley stated that the council is ‘motivated by political bias, not by human rights’ while projecting a ‘disproportionate focus and unending hostility towards Israel.’

Current members of the council also include Venezuela, China, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, nations with serious human rights violations. There are legitimate questions as to why these nations and others in recent history have been allowed to serve on the council, which is a significant global platform for the promotion of civil liberties and the fundamental principles established in the UN charter. President George W. Bush refused to join the council when it was first established in 2006, citing the human rights violations of council members, a policy which was changed under President Obama.

Should more nations around the world succumb to illiberalism and the number of full democracies decline, the number of nations on the council with human rights violations and autocratic tendencies may rise in the near future, less so from established democracies but more so from hybrid and flawed regimes from Central Europe to Asia and South America. The United States is a clear exception in that it is an established democracy with an authoritarian leader who still faces checks and balances, but the same scenario is possible in France and Germany if the far-right make further gains. 

The principles of human rights will be challenged not just by developing nations and authoritarian regimes but by Western democracies as well which are suffering from the effects of populism, nationalism and migration. These effects range from group targeting and tribal politics to efforts to divorce states from multilateral bodies such as the EU and NATO, as well as the need to increase national unity in the face of a common threat and not focus on the benefits of diversity and immigrant communities.

Migration has led to the rise of extreme populist parties that are keen to protect the native population from outsiders such as Libyans, Syrians and Mexicans, while providing a strain on social services and the tenets of the EU, such as the Schengen system of borderless travel. The UN human rights council risks being driven by nationalist politicians and not the interests of united yet disparate nations serving a common goal, and that could be to the detriment of human rights campaigners and the violations of human rights around the world. The Universal Periodic Review, which allows civil society groups to report human rights violations in UN member states remains an important tool. Likewise, the council has carried out important work in Myanmar investigating ethnic cleansing claims against the Rohingya minority as well as reviewing human rights abuses in war-torn Syria.

Russia reaps the benefits?

In the wake of the US withdrawal, Russia has expressed interest in a seat on the human rights council. Once again, Russia is reaping the benefits of American withdrawal from the global stage and the institutions it helped build in the aftermath of World War II.

Some benefits include Trump’s lack of commitment to article 5 of NATO to his dismissive comments of the EU, support for far-right parties in France and Germany who seek to undermine the EU, as well as his willingness to accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Putin’s word that he did not meddle in the US elections. The UN human rights council is a young body already in need of reform, and the lack of US leadership in reforming the council will fundamentally alter the influence of nations like China and Russia, while relegating human rights to the care of the same authoritarian regimes Washington has criticized for being allowed membership.

If the US is not at the table, China and Russia risk becoming the leaders of human rights policy at the UN, and flawed democracies that have close links with Russia and China in places such as Africa, Central Asia and South America may have greater leverage as well. Israel will also face more scrutiny than before as most UN member states are more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and quick to criticize Israel’s actions. As a result, the ‘political bias’ that Ambassador Haley referenced is likely to increase, with further hostility towards Israel and perhaps less of a critical gaze towards Syria if Russia, President Assad’s closest ally, gains a seat.  

Categories: North America, Politics

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.