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In a move that has stunned and disappointed many in the diplomatic world, the Trump administration announced Tuesday its withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council, lambasting the 47-member body as a “cesspool of political bias” that has made a mockery of human rights by holding a “chronic bias against Israel.”
The swift move drew particular criticism from U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, who tweeted Tuesday that he was disappointed and that the U.S. should be “stepping up, not stepping back.”
It’s not the first time the U.S. has stepped back. President George W. Bush's administration also boycotted the council in 2006 for similar reasons to those cited by Trump. So why is a council created for the purpose of investigating human rights violations evoking such strong emotions and political debate?
ASU Now turned to LaDawn Haglund for answers. Haglund, an associate professor of justice and social inquiry at Arizona State University, teaches several classes on human rights organizations, sustainability and economic justice.
Question: Is the U.S. withdrawal from the Human Rights Council a shock, or has this been brewing for some time?
Answer: The United States, particularly under Republican administrations, has always been somewhat hostile to the Human Rights Council (HRC). John Bolton — George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations at the time of the HRC’s formation in 2006 and now national security adviser — opposed its formation over allegations that countries that abuse human rights could not readily be prevented from sitting on the council. So it is not very surprising that there is hostility toward the HRC in the Trump administration.
But in reality, the U.S. generally has not been very supportive of the international human rights regime. Despite its key role in the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights under Eleanor Roosevelt, the U.S. has signed and ratified only a handful of multilateral instruments designed to protect rights via international law. Notably excluded are the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Once a country ratifies such instruments, they are bound to uphold its precepts, and the U.S. simply has not been willing to admit that our laws may not measure up to international law in terms of protecting human rights.
What is surprising about the administration’s decision to leave the HRC is the questionable diplomatic payoff. Complete withdrawal means no seat at the table, effectively negating any sway the U.S. might have over current council activity. It is not as if the HRC will cease to function — the U.S. term as an active member would have expired next year anyway, and they would have transitioned to observer status. But the administration has given up any power to influence current decisions of this crucial human rights body.
Q: What do you think was behind the decision to withdraw?
A: The stated reason is that HRC members are hypocritically critical of Israel while allowing abusive regimes to avoid condemnation for human rights abuses. Though there may be some truth to both claims, it is difficult to ignore the hypocrisy of U.S. withdrawal on these grounds, considering the long-term, widespread violation of Palestinian human rights by Israel, as well as current violations of the rights of migrants, children, suspected terrorists and others by the U.S. itself.
It seems more likely that the Trump administration’s narrow and isolationist view of foreign policy, along with a desire to control the discourse around human rights and the HRC agenda, created a critical mass of frustration among key administration figures to lead them to this decision. Having to play nicely within the global community of nations isn’t the most politically expedient way for the administration to achieve its goals, and so it is going to pick up its marbles and go home. This seems to be in line with other controversial decisions, including withdrawing from the Paris climate accords and the Iran nuclear deal.
Q: What are the immediate repercussions — if any — the U.S. could face for this move?
A: Like the decisions mentioned above — leaving the Paris accords and scuttling the Iran nuclear deal — the most immediate consequence of U.S. withdrawal from the HRC may be a loss of legitimacy in the eyes of our allies. In addition, the U.S. stands to lose yet another venue in which to influence decisions made by the broader community of nations.
Q: Is this more of a symbolic move, or will this actually affect day-to-day decisions on the council?
A: Given that members rotate on and off the HRC with regularity, this decision will not likely have much effect on its day-to-day functioning. The HRC will continue its important work drafting and adopting new standards for human rights, investigating alleged violations, and reviewing the record of U.N. member states for their compliance with human rights treaties through the Universal Periodic Review process.
But it does have potentially major long-term ramifications. For one, it now becomes easier for other countries to reject multilateralism. Already, questions are circulating as to whether other countries should consider leaving the body. The risk lies in the fact that it is much harder to build institutions than it is to dismantle them. The international human rights regime was built, and continues to be constructed and reconstructed, through a painstaking political and socio-legal process of negotiation, consultation and evaluation. When a powerful country like the U.S. undermines this process and the resulting institutions, it shakes the foundation of the human rights regime as a whole.
For another, the presence of the U.S. on the HRC has had a concrete influence on its actions; leaving will likely reverse those effects. In claiming to leave for the sake of Israel, the administration is ignoring the evidence that U.S. presence has actually led to a decline in resolutions critical of Israel. The U.S. has also balanced the influence of other powerful countries like Russia and China in investigations of human rights abuses. The long-term impact on certain human rights issues is thus likely to be notable.
Q: Some say there’s a direct correlation between this withdrawal and a U.N. official calling the Trump administration’s decision to separate children from their families at the border “unconscionable.” Is there a link?
A: The decision to leave the HRC has been on the table for a long time, so it cannot be said to be a direct consequence of statements made by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights critical of these border violations. But it is the case that many key members of the Trump administration have a dim view of international criticism of U.S. policy. As John Bolton himself has said, “We don't need advice by the U.N. or other international bodies on how to govern ourselves.” So it is certainly possible that the condemnation from the highest levels of the international human rights regime was the last straw for those who believe they have nothing to learn from that regime.
Top photo illustration courtesy of Max Pixel