Skip to main content

On Tuesday 19th of June the United States withdrew its position as a member of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). This announcement is seen by many as a blow to the human rights agenda, but to others it is simply viewed as an inevitable development in a series of US withdrawals from international agreements which has formed part of the administrations “America First” policy.

The UNHRC was established in 2006, succeeding the UN’s commission on Human Rights. The council’s primary function is to coordinate the UN’s human rights strategy and promote international cooperation on human rights issues. It also maintains a mechanism in which human rights violations and abuses can be reported and investigated.

The council consists of 47 member states who are all elected through a secret ballot held by the UN General Assembly. Members are elected for a three year term and cannot be re-elected immediately after two consecutive terms. Membership to the council is distributed on proportional geographic location; the regions from which members are selected are divided into African-States, Asia-Pacific States, Latin American States, Western European States and Eastern European States.

The U.S. withdrawal from the UNHRC has not particularly come as a surprise to the other members. In June 2017, Nikki Healy, the US ambassador to the UN, alluded to the possibility of the US withdrawal from the council. Healy asserted that the ‘‘human rights council is so corrupt’’ and that without reform there could be no certainty regarding the US’s future within the organisation.

Wolf in sheep’s clothing

Israeli bias and institutional hypocrisy are at the top of a long list of critiques that the US has made towards the UNHRC. Israel’s human rights violations have been one of the main points of focus for the UNHRC’s agenda since its establishment in 2006. Healy claimed that this persistent and enduring focus of the council on Israel is evidence that the HRC is motivated by a ‘‘political bias’’ more than its commitment towards human rights.

The US is not alone in holding this opinion of the UNHRC. The UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson expressed similar concerns as the US regarding the UNHRC’s ‘‘disproportionate’’ focus on Israel. Johnson claimed that this was damaging the reputation as well as the intended outcomes of the UNHRC, supporting the idea that it should be removed from the Council’s agenda by the end of the year.

The membership of the UNHRC has also attracted significant criticism from both the US and others, including non-governmental organisations such as Freedom House. The purpose of the Council is to promote, protect and uphold human rights both inside and outside of its member states. However, ten of the 42 members of the HRC are countries that have been ranked as ‘‘not free’’ by the annual Freedom House report; meaning that their citizens are deemed to have have limited to no political rights and freedoms as well as limited to no civil liberties. The membership of states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Congo and Rwanda (all of whom are included in the list of ‘‘not free’’ states) is seen by the U.S., as the biggest hypocrisy of the Council, and they consider these countries to be among the ‘‘worst human rights abusers’’.

Political reverberations

Whilst the rulings of the UNHRC have never been legally binding, they often do exert a degree of soft power on nations both within and outside of the council. The withdrawal of the US from the Council undermines and weakens its soft power and the impact its rulings may have over non-member states in the future. Russian diplomats have claimed that the decision of the US to ‘‘slam the door’’ and walk away from the UNHRC is a sign of their weakness within the international arena.

There has been significant domestic backlash towards the move. Human rights advocates in the U.S., such as the American Civil Liberties Union, argue that the US’s withdrawal from the UNHRC reflects Donald Trump’s ‘‘complete and utter disregard’’ for human rights. Other human rights agencies such as Save the Children have stated that there is without a doubt serious and “legitimate concerns” about the Council’s human rights failings, but claim that this by no mean justifies complete US withdrawal.

Ambassador Healy has defended the US’s position against the backlash, claiming that the withdrawal does not mean that the United States is not committed to the human rights agenda, as they will continue to work with the councils chief. Healy also alluded to the idea that the move might not be permanent; if the UNHRC was to adopt the reforms proposed by the US, then they “would be happy to rejoin”.

Conclusion

The UN Human Rights Council’s aims are clear, “to strengthen the promotion and protection of the human rights” throughout the world. What is not so clear or certain is the impact that the US withdrawal will have on the Council’s future. The one thing that the can be drawn from the United States’ withdrawal, is that there is a real need for reform within the UNHRC; in particular, the council should consider the legitimacy of its membership, especially if its rulings on human rights abuses are to be taken seriously by both member and non-member states.

Finley Morris is a member of Bright Blue and completed work experience with us recently. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.