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U.S. Withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council: Right Decision, Bad Optics

Summary:
Confirming rumors that had been circulating for weeks, the Trump administration announced that the United States will withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council. That body consists of 47 member states with rotating, staggered 3-year terms. It is tasked with protecting human rights as well as highlighting and condemning regimes that violate those rights. The Council has been controversial since its inception, especially among American conservatives. George W. Bush’s administration declined to make the United States a member when the UN General Assembly established the Council in 2006. President Obama reversed that decision in 2009.     In announcing the U.S. withdrawal, Ambassador Nikki Haley blasted the organization as a “cesspool of political bias.” Vice President Mike Pence was

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Confirming rumors that had been circulating for weeks, the Trump administration announced that the United States will withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council. That body consists of 47 member states with rotating, staggered 3-year terms. It is tasked with protecting human rights as well as highlighting and condemning regimes that violate those rights. The Council has been controversial since its inception, especially among American conservatives. George W. Bush’s administration declined to make the United States a member when the UN General Assembly established the Council in 2006. President Obama reversed that decision in 2009.    

In announcing the U.S. withdrawal, Ambassador Nikki Haley blasted the organization as a “cesspool of political bias.” Vice President Mike Pence was equally caustic, stating that the United States was taking a stand “against some of the world’s worst human rights violators by withdrawing from the United Nations Human Rights Council. By elevating and protecting human rights violators and engaging in smear campaigns against democratic nations, the UNHRC makes a mockery of itself, its members, and the mission it was founded on. For years, the UNHRC has engaged in ever more virulent anti-American and anti-Israel invective and the days of U.S. participation are over.”

The decision has far more symbolic than substantive importance. For all of the publicity surrounding the UNHRC’s periodic condemnations of specific regimes, the body has no enforcement powers. Critics of Washington’s decision, though, see repudiating the UNHRC as another in a series of Trump administration moves to relinquish America’s “global leadership role” and retreat into an “America alone” foreign policy. They cite earlier examples such as Washington’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the withdrawal from the Paris agreement on climate change, and efforts to undermine the Iran nuclear agreement.

There are understandable reasons for the latest U.S. action, however. Haley correctly noted the offensive absurdity of having nations with horrific human-rights records as members of the UNHRC. But even her citation of such regimes opened the U.S. up to charges of hypocrisy. Her list of inappropriate members was heavily weighted with left-wing regimes hostile to Washington, including China, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Venezuela. Notably missing from her indictment were such autocratic U.S. allies and notorious rights abusers as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Philippines, and Pakistan.

Such selectivity contributes to global cynicism about Washington’s ethics. So does the extreme emphasis on the UNHRC’s unfair treatment of Israel. The organization certainly is biased against that country, issuing numerous condemnations of its conduct in recent years and in 2017 describing Israel as the world’s worst human-rights violator. Given the records of such countries as North Korea, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia, that allegation is an groteque exaggeration.

However, the United States has shown a disturbing unwillingness to criticize any aspect of Israel’s policy, even its ongoing harsh treatment of Palestinians. Washington has refused to support, and often vetoes, UN resolutions criticizing Israeli conduct, even when most of America’s democratic allies are on board. That is an unhealthy, hypocritical stance, and using the UNHRC’s treatment of Israel as the primary reason for the decision to quit that body adds to a growing U.S. reputation for hypocrisy.

It also didn’t help matters that the announcement of Washington’s decision came just days after the Office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the Trump administration’s policy of separating the families of immigrants accused of illegal entry. The timing appeared to reflect a petty reaction to criticism.

Thus, while U.S. officials made a defensible policy change regarding a toothless, pretentious, and hypocritical UN agency, they could scarcely have done a worse job of managing the optics. The incident is yet another example of the Trump administration’s unduly clumsy handling of foreign affairs.

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