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“A cesspool of political bias”: the US announces it’s quitting the UN Human Rights Council

UN Ambassador Nikki Haley made the announcement Tuesday evening.

US Ambassador to the United Nation Nikki Haley speaks at the US Department of State in Washington DC on June 19, 2018.
AFP/Getty Images

The United States has just pulled out of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

It’s a controversial move that leaves the US without a voice in one of the most visible international human rights bodies in the world, and comes amid a roiling debate in the US over the Trump administration’s new immigration policy.

Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, announced the decision on Tuesday evening, saying that the US could no longer be part of a UN body that was a “protector of human rights abusers, and a cesspool of political bias.”

“Look at the council membership and you see an appalling disrespect for human rights,” she said, citing member countries China, Venezuela, Russia, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Egypt. She went on to speak at length about how the council displayed a “chronic anti-Israel bias” and was “not worthy of its name.”

The move isn’t a complete surprise; the US has been threatening to pull out of the council for some time now, mainly over the issue of Israel. Other countries have expressed misgivings about the council as well, most notably for the continued presence of countries with terrible human rights records as members.

But the Trump administration’s decision to leave the council is also in keeping with an ongoing trend: The Trump administration has zealously moved away from international agreements and entanglements over the past year and a half, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Iran nuclear deal, and announcing its intention to withdraw from the Paris climate accords, among others.

Because of this, the US withdrawal from the council will likely be viewed less as a clear criticism of a deeply flawed organization and more as another example of America’s retreat from the world stage under President Trump.

The US and the UN council have had a troubled relationship for some time

The human rights body was created in 2006 and considers itself responsible for the “promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe.”

It’s composed of 47 members — and this is the first time a member country has voluntarily decided to leave.

But the US has had a tumultuous relationship with the council since its inception. Under President George W. Bush’s administration, the US boycotted the council over what it perceived as the hypocrisy and outsized influence of some member states that did not respect their citizens’ rights.

But in 2009, President Barack Obama decided to rejoin the international body, out of a desire to reform it. “With others, we will engage in the work of improving the U.N. human rights system,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement. “We believe every nation must live by and help shape global rules that ensure people enjoy the right to live freely and participate fully in their societies.”

In the years since, the council has made some positive and effective changes, like instituting a periodic review of each country’s human rights record in order to hold them to account. It has also issued resolutions that influenced countries to reduce torture and human trafficking, and improve their treatment of journalists.

Yet it has failed to address certain systemic issues, like allowing countries that openly violate human rights laws, such as Saudi Arabia, to remain on as members. And last June, Haley said that the US was carefully considering its continued membership in the council — over what she described as the council’s “anti-Israel bias.”

“It’s hard to accept that this council has never considered a resolution on Venezuela and yet it adopted five biased resolutions, in March, against a single country, Israel,” she said at the time.

At a council meeting last month, the council members voted to investigate the recent violence at the Gaza border and accused Israel of excessive use of force, after the Israeli military killed 125 Palestinians over the past few months. The United States and Australia were the only countries to vote against opening the investigation.

But despite all the talk of UN member states’ hypocrisy and bias, the US’s decision on Tuesday may actually be linked to an issue a little closer to home.

The move to pull out of the council comes one day after Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for human rights, heavily criticized the Trump administration’s immigration policy that forcibly separates families who cross the border into the US illegally.

“The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable,” Hussein said, in a speech on June 18.

It seems that may have been the last straw for the Trump administration.

It’s not the first time the Trump administration has done something like this

Over the past year, the Trump administration has signaled that it’s not interested in international cooperation on a variety of issues, by pulling out of agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, and others.

It’s also worth noting that administration officials, and the president himself, have downplayed the significance of human rights in their dealings with Egypt, the Philippines, and other countries. As recently as last week, after meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a historic summit in Singapore, Trump dodged questions about human rights and praised Kim as a “very talented man.”

Still, giving up a seat at the table at the UN’s most important committee on human rights is a bold move — and could represent an important shift for the US, which has portrayed itself as a strong advocate for international human rights.

It’s a move that’s sure to have reverberations around the globe, and will undoubtedly impact America’s international standing for years to come.