Withdrawal From Human Rights Council Furthers US Isolation

Update: Read our joint response to a letter from US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, blaming human rights groups for the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council.

This week, President Trump’s efforts to undermine global consensus and multilateralism took the form of a withdrawal from the Human Rights Council, a United Nations body comprised of 47 member states responsible for promoting and protecting human rights around the world. This move from President Trump is both extremely disappointing and entirely predictable, when viewed in concert with the president’s isolationist, “America First” foreign policy and disregard for human rights.

The Council serves as a critical global space for countries to assess, discuss human rights, and make decisions on ways to protect and further these rights. In recent years, the Council has taken action to address abuses affecting millions of women worldwide, including discrimination and violence against women, and child, early, and forced marriage. In 2016, the Council adopted a groundbreaking resolution on LGBTQ rights, mandating the appointment of an Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Human Rights Council also regularly spotlights grave human rights abuses by countries, including the ongoing atrocities in Syria.

President Trump’s decision marks the first time since the Council was established in 2006 that a sitting member has voluntarily chosen to resign its membership. The US has been a member since 2009, when President Obama reversed a Bush-era policy of shunning the Council and actively sought a seat. At that time, then secretary of state Hillary Clinton emphasized the Council’s importance, and stated that “Human rights are an essential element of American global foreign policy.”

Since then, the US has played an important role in supporting a strong Human Rights Council and has taken the lead in directing attention toward human rights abuses in countries around the world. The US has often served as a counterweight to the several repressive governments that currently hold seats on the Council. Under President Trump, however, the US will now join Iran, North Korea, and Eritrea as the only countries refusing to engage in the Council’s vital work.

As is the case with a number of UN bodies, the Human Rights Council is not perfect and reform remains a hotly debated issue. IWHC and other human rights organizations have long supported efforts to improve the effectiveness, credibility, and accessibility of the Council. However, instead of making a serious effort to work toward these reforms through established processes at the Council, the US has opted to walk away from a body where it has previously and can continue to have a positive impact.

The US withdrawal comes as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights strongly criticized the US for the Trump administration’s policy of detaining children separately from their parents along the US-Mexico border. High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein stated “the thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable.” Although not related to the decision to withdraw, this confluence further illustrates this administration’s utter disregard for human rights, international norms and standards, and multilateralism.

The Trump administration’s efforts to discredit and undermine the Human Rights Council and other multilateral institutions have only served to further marginalize and isolate the United States in the global community. Its withdrawal from the Human Rights Council is yet another blow to the global system of rules-based multilateralism long embraced by the United States and a further indication of this administration’s extreme measures to retreat from diplomacy and positive global engagement.

Photo: “America does not seek to leave the Human Rights Council,” Haley told an international audience at Geneva’s Graduate Institute on June 6, 2017. (US Mission / Eric Bridiers)

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