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US withdraws from UN Human Rights Council

June 19, 2018

The Trump administration has yet again pulled the United States out of a major global body — this time the UN Human Rights Council. The move comes a day after the UNHRC criticized Trump's immigration policies.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley arrive to a press briefing, announcing the U.S.'s withdrawal from the U.N's Human Rights Council
Image: Reuters/T.S. Jordan

The United States told the United Nations on Tuesday of its intention to withdraw from the intergovernmental organization's Human Rights Council.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the announcement at a press conference in Washington. 

It comes a day after the HRC denounced the Trump administration's policy of separating children from their migrant parents at the US border with Mexico, with UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein calling the practice "unconscionable."

What was said:

  • "We take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights," Haley said.
  • "For too long the Human Rights Council has been a protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias," said Haley. "The world's most inhumane regimes continue to escape scrutiny."
  • Haley also condemned the Geneva-based council's "unrelenting bias" against Israel. Pompeo said that "the council's continued and well-documented bias against Israel is unconscionable."
  • Pompeo added: "Since its creation, the council has adopted more resolutions condemning Israel than against the rest of the world combined."
  • Pompeo said the council once had a "noble vision," but added: "Today we need to be honest ... The Human Rights Council is a poor defender of human rights."
  • Haley left the door open for the US to eventually return to the council, saying: "We will continue to lead on human rights outside the misnamed Human Rights Council. Should it become reformed we would be happy to rejoin."

'Disappointing news'

Zeid called the decision by the US "disappointing, if not really surprising news" in a statement posted on the UN Human Rights Twitter account. The human rights chief added: "The US should be stepping up, not stepping back."

US Senator Chris Coons, a member of the opposition Democratic party, said the move was a "serious mistake" and could weaken US leadership on a global scale.

"The UN Human Rights Council isn't perfect, but withdrawing the United States from this important body sends a clear message that the Trump Administration does not intend to lead the world when it comes to human rights," Coons said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the move as "courageous" of the US, calling the council "a biased, hostile, anti-Israel organization that has betrayed its mission of protecting human rights."

Conflict Zone - Human Rights Wronged

Calling it quits

The UN Human Rights Council is just the latest major organization or international agreement from which the Trump administration has withdrawn. US President Donald Trump removed the United States from the Iran nuclear deal last month. He also pulled the US out of UN cultural agency UNESCO and the Paris climate accord last year.

The US departure from the HRC also comes after Zeid's comments condemning the Trump administration's policy of breaking up migrating families who cross into the US from Mexico. "The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable," Zeid said. 

Read more: Do 'rights violators' Afghanistan and Pakistan deserve to be on UN rights body?

Haley did not mention Zeid's comments during Thursday's press conference, but Pompeo used the word "unconscionable" when describing the UN's treatment of Israel.

What does the Human Rights Council do? The HRC was established in 2006 to examine human rights breaches in UN member states. Its headquarters are in Geneva, Switzerland and it meets three times per year. It also aims to protect freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, religious freedom, women's rights, LGBT rights and rights of racial and ethnic minorities. Its resolutions carry moral authority, but are not legally binding.

Who comprises the HRC? The HRC has 47 member countries, which are elected to three-year terms by the General Assembly. Membership is distributed among five global regions and member countries cannot immediately seek reelection after two consecutive terms. Members of the council include not only Germany and Japan, but also China, Cuba and Venezuela — countries that are themselves accused of human rights violations.

The UN and Israel: Israel has been the subject of more resolutions by the Human Rights Council than any other nation by far. It is also the only country to have its rights record reviewed during every council meeting, which occurs three times a year. Haley threatened to withdraw the United States from the council a year ago citing anti-Israel bias. 

Why is this announcement historic? The United States is the first country ever to quit the council. It joined the council in 2009 under the Obama administration and served two terms until 2015. It rejoined in 2016 and was set to stay on the council until 2019 before Tuesday's announcement.

What happens now? The HRC is currently in its second session of the year, which runs until July 6. The third session has yet to be scheduled, but normally takes place sometime in September. The UN has not yet announced whether it will elect another country to replace the US and restore the council's membership to 47.

dv/se (AFP, dpa, AP, Reuters)