US withdrawal from UNHRC, Put Simply

By Director of Operations Will Fawcett

The United States’ rejection of multilateralism came to a flashpoint on Tuesday when Washington announced that it would withdraw from the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council, labelling it a “cesspool of political bias”. Formed in 2006 to replace the much criticised United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), the 47-member body appears to be suffering from the same fate as its predecessor by allowing countries with dubious human rights records, such as China, Saudi Arabia and Russia, to become members. The Bush Administration had initially boycotted the UN branch upon its formation in 2006 for these exact reasons, and it was not until the arrival of the Obama Administration to the White House that the United States was readmitted

However, like other international bodies and agreements, the UNHRC remained a poisoned chalice for the United States, particularly regarding its “biased” treatment against the Israeli government. Owing to the fact that Israel has received more official condemnations by the body than the rest of the world combined, easily surpassing the likes of Syria and Sudan, the United States believes the body is fundamentally flawed and actually damaging US interests. Not surprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded with warm appraisal for Washington’s decision, reiterating US Ambassador Nikki Haley’s remark that it was “hard to accept” that dozens of resolutions had been passed against Israel yet none were even considered for turmoil-stricken Venezuela. Israel remains the only country subject to a permanent standing agenda for its treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. 

The decision comes amid widespread backlash from the international community, and even Republicans themselves, over the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration policy that has seen child migrants separated from their parents at the Mexican border. Divisions between the United States and its European allies notably widened since the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House. The withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the Iran Deal in May, the reintroduction of tariffs on aluminium and steel and Donald Trump’s damning rhetoric on the handling of the European migrant crisis and trade policy has all culminated in yet another isolationist and unilateral decision taken by the current US administration to put American interests first. 

The tit-for-tat diplomatic exchanges between the United States and much of the rest of the world continued on Tuesday night, with many disappointed by Washington’s decision to surrender its leadership on the council which is currently in the throes of one of three sessions it holds every year. Whilst Nikki Haley stressed that this step was “not a retreat” from the US’ human rights commitments, many emphasised that the body was the sole moral authority in the international sphere on human rights abuses. A number of charities and aid groups have subsequently criticised the move, and UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson reinforced the importance of the UNHRC to hold states to account, despite a call for reform in the same breath

However, for the United States, the underlying reason appears to be the “disproportionate focus and unending hostility” towards Israel that was “motivated by political bias, not by human rights”. The seeming unbreakable protection of Israel at the UN has resulted in the US becoming the first member state to withdraw from the UNHRC. Whilst the body places a hugely important role in countries such as North Korea, Syria and Myanmar, its resolutions are not legally binding and thus acts solely as a moral authority on human rights issues. The endless criticism of Israel has obviously proved too much for the Trump Administration, leaving the international community yet again to predict the next isolationist and unilateral move to be taken by the United States. 

Sources and Further Reading

Image United Nations Photo @flickr 

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