An Intern's Perspective

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United States Withdrawal from UNHRC: bad move or bad timing?

Posted by [email protected] on June 25, 2018 at 5:45 AM

By Lucia Lombardo

On June 19, the United States stated it would drop out of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) after months of American attacks against the body. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley stated the US reasoning behind the sudden move was due to “chronic bias” against Israel by the Council. This move was seen as unfortunate but not surprising from many US allies and other members of the UNHRC, as President Trump and Haley had threatened to withdraw from the Council last year unless major changes were made to the Council’s agenda. The main grievance the US had against the Council was its investigations into and criticisms of Israel’s human rights record, shown with a permanent agenda item simply titled ‘Item 7.’ This item has been discussed at every Council meeting since June 2006. The US is not alone in criticizing the Council for focusing on the Israel-Palestinian conflict; former UN Secretaries General Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon, the European Union and Canada have accused the UNHRC of focusing disproportionately on the conflict. Personally, I take greater issue with the makeup of the Council’s membership; since countries are voted onto the Council for three-year terms, at any given time the Council could contain members that have been accused of or are guilty of serious human rights abuses. Currently membership includes the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Philippines, and Venezuela, all of which have spotty human rights records at best.

Regardless of the reasoning, what makes this move worse is the optics surrounding the decision. This withdrawal came only one day after Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN's high commissioner for human rights, spoke out against President Trump’s recently implemented zero tolerance policy at the US-Mexico border, calling it “government-sanctioned child abuse.” Because of this timing, the decision to withdraw the US from the Council was seen as a response to the condemnation and as the US having complete disregard for human rights. I believe that on the international stage, it is better to remain in organizations to try to fix those that are not perfect than to leave as a pariah. The US cannot hope to improve the UNHRC from the outside, a fact that UK foreign minister Boris Johnson acknowledged in his response to the US decision.

This decision has made waves across the international community and within the US, with supporters and detractors not split down party lines. What is not surprising is this administration’s overt preference to back Israel on the world stage even more strongly than past US presidents, all of whom received criticism for what some say is turning a blind eye to Israel’s human rights abuses. What is also not surprising is Trump’s proclivity towards taking the US out of international organizations and commitments. However, what is somewhat surprising is the decision to take the US out of the UNHRC now, especially since the country’s final term on the Council is up in less than a year. Arguably, this sends a stronger message to the Council than staying the full term would, but the fall-out from the US’s early departure is still occurring and the full ramifications of this decision are still unknown.

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