The U.S. Is Leaving the U.N. Human Rights Council but Not for the Reason You Think

Flags fly at the entrance to the U.N. in Geneva, Switzerland.

Flags fly at the entrance to the U.N. in Geneva, Switzerland. | x-drew/iStock/Getty Images

The United States has decided to pull out of the U.N. Human Rights Council, following a statement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. That move comes just one day after that body criticized President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy that separates parents from their children at the Southern border. However, the reason why the U.S. will separate from the council doesn’t have the basis casual observers might think.

Pompeo and Haley announced the departure to the State Department on June 19, according to TIME. While this marks the first time a country has voluntarily left, the U.S. also has not always participated.

The U.S. only joined under Barack Obama

Currently, 47 countries serve in the Human Rights Council. The U.N.’s General Assembly elects them, after allocating a specific number of seats for each area of the globe. Members serve for three-year terms and can serve only two terms in a row. According to The UN Dispatch, then U.N. ambassador John Bolton successfully lobbied against the George W. Bush administration joining at the council’s creation in 2005. After the 2008 elections, the United States opted to join under Obama. At that time, it concluded that the U.S. could better advance its interests from inside the council.

Evidence also supports that statement. A 2017 report by the Council on Foreign Relations examined the council’s work in years in which the United States served and those when it didn’t. In all, the U.S. did advance its interests internationally better in years when it participated.

The U.S. pulling out could appear mostly symbolic

TIME notes that, because of term limits, the U.S. leaving now might look mostly like posturing. The current term on the council ends next year. At that time, the U.S. could revert to an observer, like other countries that don’t also hold membership. Observer countries can speak out when they see rights abuses, but they can’t vote on them.

Trump’s “America First,” policy takes a unique view of the complex web of U.S. treaties and alliances, NPR explains. Because his business background informs his worldview, the president sees these partnerships as financial burdens instead of assets. This latest move falls right in line with his bombastic, and often shortsighted foreign policy strategies.

How leaving the council aligns with Trump’s strategy

Donald Trump frowning

Donald Trump | Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images

The president holds a long record of making moves that raise eyebrows in foreign policy circles. Most recently, Trump has taken Canada to task over tariffs. He also called out NATO over defense costs, and decided to halt joint military exercises with South Korea. All of those rest on the almighty dollar, with very little eye toward diplomacy.

Numerous officials have repeatedly reassured the public that “America First does not mean America Alone,” but Trump doesn’t seem to take that same view. It has also withdrawn from a number of accords and agreements that don’t have a direct financial line.

Since Jan. 2017, the U.S. has announced its withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, left the U.N. educational and cultural organizations and backed off of the Iran nuclear deal. Those moves, together with tariffs and moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv, have all drawn criticism.

1 country’s interests may have spurred the withdrawal

According to The Washington Post, Haley actually first threatened to pull out of the council in 2o17. She cited longstanding U.S. complaints that the 47-member council appears biased against Israel. The ambassador then denounced the council as a “forum for politics, hypocrisy and evasion.” She also accused member countries Venezuela, Cuba, China, Burundi, and Saudi Arabia of failing to fulfill their duties to “uphold the highest standards” of human rights, while emphasizing what she considered its anti-Israel bias.

“As we have said numerous times, the U.N. Human Rights Council must be reformed to ensure it has the ability to realize its important mission,” the State Department said. “At its best, the HRC calls out human rights violators and encourages positive action. However, all too frequently it fails to address critical situations for political reasons — and undermines its own credibility,” it added.

The U.S. leaving has its critics

The U.N. council isn’t the only one that undermines its own credibility. Some experts fear withdrawing will only add fuel to the perception that the Trump administration remains too interested in Israel’s agenda. Previously, Haley’s office has also pressured the council not to publish a U.N. database of companies operating in West Bank settlements. That alleged blacklist could drive companies away, Israel says, and further detract from its presence in the West Bank.

“The Trump administration’s withdrawal is a sad reflection of its one-dimensional human rights policy: Defending Israeli abuses from criticism takes precedence above all else,” Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, told TIME. “All Trump seems to care about is defending Israel,” he said. If the U.S. leaves, it will also abdicate its right to weigh in on human rights abuses elsewhere.

The U.S. concern over Israel does not come totally unfounded, however. Israel’s rights record holds a permanent spot on the council agenda, UN Watch points out. “Item 7” on “Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories” has remained part of the council’s regular business almost as long as that body has existed.

Here’s 1 country that really benefits

And leaving the council comes with other consequences, too. The U.S. leaving could also ease pressure on China, The Washington Post notes. Historically, the U.S. has stood up against China, the only country to do so. As China continues to grow more diplomatically assertive, the council needs the U.S. to exercise its strength against its abuses. Leaving that body, or even stepping away from the voting body, could give China freer reign.

As in the past, many experts suggest that Trump’s foreign policy appears shortsighted in this instance. “By withdrawing from the council, we lose our leverage and allow the council’s bad actors to follow their worst impulses unchecked — including running roughshod over Israel,” Democrat representative Eliot L. Engel told The Washington Post. “However, this administration’s approach when it sees a problem is to take the United States off the field,” he added. “That undermines our standing in the world and allows our adversaries to fill the void.”

Leaving the council makes a statement both on its treatment of Israel and, perhaps unintentionally, its criticism of the zero-tolerance immigration policy. However, it also says something important about the U.S. leadership’s interests in human rights, worldwide.

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