On Tuesday, Nikki Haley, keeping her promise to “take names” at the U.N., announced America’s withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council — “a protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias” — beside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Objections abounded. Human Rights Watch complained that the withdrawal represents a “one-dimensional human rights policy in which the US defends Israeli abuses from criticism above all else.” Kremlin officials crowed that the U.S. had “inflicted a powerful blow to its human rights reputation.” Amnesty International secretary-general Salil Shetty said that the decision demonstrated a “complete disregard for the fundamental rights and freedoms the U.S. claims to uphold.”
Once again, Haley was right and her critics were wrong. America’s withdrawal from the UNHRC is a boon for human-rights promotion and a win for multilateral diplomacy that actually falls far afield of the Trump doctrine’s hard-edged unilateralism and apparent disregard for values-based diplomacy. The move constitutes a redoubling of America’s commitment to its fundamental ideals and the rules-based international order.
The council was founded in 2006 as a replacement for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, whose habit of providing cover to its human-rights-abusing member countries had become too big an embarrassment for the U.N. to ignore. Former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan was right when he said that, “the Commission’s declining credibility has cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole.” It faltered for the same reason that the UNHRC falters today: rampant anti-Israel posturing combined with a determination to ignore the unsavory human-rights records of other states. President George W. Bush, who recognized these problems in 2006, declined to seek U.S. membership on the council, meaning the United States had only participated in the body from the start of the Obama administration until now.
Ironically, the very attribute that gives the UNHRC a smidge more legitimacy than the now-defunct commission is the root cause of its many problems: While the diversity of different states that sit on the council legitimates its findings before a large group of states, the geographically determined distribution of seats favors regions more likely to include countries with abhorrent records.
Although the United States attempted to negotiate the inclusion of membership criteria for the UNHRC in 2006, the General Assembly declined, and the council came into being without any. The United States said that it would abstain from seeking election to the first convocation of the body while maintaining the option to join if it appeared effective; the election of Cuba, Russia, China, and others to the council, as well as a raft of unimpressive acts during its first session, confirmed these initial doubts. Time and again, the United States has given the UNHRC chances to prove itself more than a playground for the world’s bullies, only to be disappointed.
Withdrawal is an act of lonely and principled leadership, one that will hopefully pay a future dividend in the form of changes to the UNHRC.
Recall that leaving the council was not Haley’s first choice. As she noted in her remarks on Tuesday, the United States led a year-long campaign to fix it before withdrawing. The goal of the reform effort was to amend the body’s standing agenda, a document that provides the grounds on which it may pass resolutions. Item Seven on the agenda, entitled, “Human rights situation in Palestine and the other occupied Arab territories,” has been instrumentalized by Israel’s enemies at the U.N. to push their cause, resulting in numerous resolutions singling out the Jewish state. In fact, it remains the only item on the UNHRC agenda that refers to a specific country’s situation, an embodiment of the anti-Israel bias embedded in the council’s institutional framework.
While the 47-member body has trained its ire on Israel, the bad guys have gotten off more or less scot-free. Despite the council’s commendable action on North Korea’s human-rights abuses — a commission of inquiry resulted in an important 2014 report — and progress in some other areas, China’s presence on the body has allowed it to silence political dissidents by, among other tactics, employing an army of representatives from 34 government-sponsored organizations in Geneva, where the UNHRC is based. In fact, since the council’s 2006 founding, none of its members have brought a resolution against China.
But the UNHRC isn’t abjectly irredeemable. As a member of the council during the Obama years, the United States was able to lead efforts to highlight human-rights issues in Syria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia. America’s participation allowed it to play some role in steering the U.N.’s treatment of human-rights abuses. What’s more, the Universal Periodic Review mechanism established by the council has increased the level of transparency and cooperation in the conversation about human rights.
All that said, the council as currently constituted doesn’t give the United States much power to mitigate its excesses. Without the ability to even influence the debate over resolutions that insert “Xi Jinping Thought” into the human-rights legal lexicon, U.S. participation doesn’t do much good. Withdrawal is an act of lonely and principled leadership, one that will hopefully pay a future dividend in the form of changes to the UNHRC. Without the removal of Item Seven and the addition of membership criteria, America would do better to go it alone than to share the same stage as the world’s worst human-rights abusers. After all, there is more to be gained at the U.N. by sidelining dictators through structural reformthan by abetting their treachery through acquiescence.