Trump cuts US a bad deal in leaving UN Human Rights Council

While rights body is scarred by hypocrisy, US involvement has always been for the better

US permanent representative to UN Nikki Haley:  called rights body a “protector of human-rights abusers, and a cesspool of political bias”. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

US permanent representative to UN Nikki Haley: called rights body a “protector of human-rights abusers, and a cesspool of political bias”. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

 

A few years ago, I covered a long hearing in the cavernous hall in Geneva where the UN Human Rights Council holds its plenary meetings. Ireland was in the spotlight that day. Alan Shatter, who was minister for justice at the time, along with a team of civil servants, spent several hours fielding questions about the State’s human rights record from delegations representing dozens of countries. This was part of the council’s periodic review, a process in which states are interrogated on – and asked to answer for – their rights record before their peers. The event was by turns insightful and surreal. Surreal because, among those raising concerns to Shatter that day were some of the worst human rights abusers in the world. The Pakistani delegation had concerns about how Ireland dealt with domestic violence. Uzbekistan deplored the State’s treatment of prisoners. The Afghans were exercised by the situation facing Travellers. They were all legitimate and well-informed interventions. But it was hard to know whether the whole ritual was an apogee or a nadir for the UN system. Was it an achievement of sorts to have authoritarian regimes give this implicit, albeit purely theoretical, support to the human rights agenda and engaging in the fine detail of it in this way? Or did the plain hypocrisy of the exercise fatally undermine the council itself?

For Donald Trump’s administration, it’s the latter. Announcing the decision to withdraw from the council this month, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, called it a “protector of human-rights abusers, and a cesspool of political bias” and said the US “should not provide it with any credibility”. Haley was particularly critical of what she called its “chronic bias” against Israel (a standing agenda topic, known as “item 7”, on the occupied Palestinian territories, means the issue must be raised at every council session). The US has long been sceptical about the council; George W Bush’s administration refused to take part after the body was established in 2006. Washington and others have also criticised the council for focusing too much on issues where consensus is somewhat easier to find – the elderly or children’s rights, for example – at the expense of tackling abuses that go to the heart of individual despotic regimes.

Least worst model

Even the council’s most ardent defenders acknowledge its flaws. But it’s the least worst model the UN has devised and, in recent years, despite its shortcomings, it has been notching up some notable successes.

The council is the successor to the discredited UN Commission on Human Rights, which was fatally damaged by allowing states with egregious rights records gain membership and avoid scrutiny (famously, the commission was once chaired by Muammar Gadafy). The council’s 47 rotating members are elected by their peers for three-year terms. Those elections mean that, today for example, the council includes flagrant human rights abusers such as Saudi Arabia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Qatar – a problem partly attributable to the block voting that still goes on within certain regions. Perhaps its most useful innovation is the periodic review, where states willingly submit themselves to critique from their peers. For its supporters, the hypocrisy is a price worth paying for getting autocratic regimes to accept the human rights agenda and get involved in implementing it.

The irony is that the US is leaving the council – and joining North Korea and Eritrea, the other two countries that shun the council – at a time when the body is making important strides on Washington’s areas of concern.

Focus on Israel

The focus on Israel is lessening, with the share of time spent on “item 7” having halved in recent years. Regional groups are less inclined to shield their members, meaning that Sudan, Syria, Iran and Belarus have all failed to get elected or withdrawn their candidacies. Perhaps most importantly, the council has appointed independent rapporteurs to carry out just the type of investigations the US says the body should carry out. These have included investigations into rights abuses in Yemen, North Korea, Myanmar, Gaza, Eritrea, Burundi and the Central African Republic. As Human Rights Watch points out, at least some of this greater impact can be attributed to American re-engagement with the council after Barack Obama became president.

If, as many suspect, Trump’s decision is driven by pique at the prospect of being called out for his own administration’s rights abuses, leaving won’t really help. The US will continue to be assessed under the periodic review, which applies to all UN member states. If anything, the council will now be freer than before to highlight US violations.

In other words, the Trump administration is relinquishing its leadership position, leaving Israel more isolated and giving up some of the leverage it holds over the world’s biggest malefactors. In exchange, it gains nothing at all. Even by Trump’s standards, that’s not much of a deal.

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