United States Withdrawal from United Nations Human Rights Council

By Bruce Knotts

The UN Human Rights Council meets in Geneva, Switzerland

The United Nations Human Rights Council meets in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Trump administration has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council over what the Trump administration calls the Council’s bias against Israel. First, let me point out that the UN Human Rights Council is a deliberative body of representatives of many nations with a variety of opinions and biases. The Human Rights Council doesn’t make decisions, it is the member states (countries) that make the decisions. It is similar in that respect to the United Nations itself and all other deliberative bodies such as the U.S. Congress, the state legislature, and your city council. Within such a body, you hear many opinions, including many you may not like. You try to find like-minded partners in a deliberative body such as the Human Rights Council. One way to ensure the defeat of your point of view is to leave the field to your opponents.

The United States has been a forceful voice for human rights in the Human Rights Council, and its withdrawal from that deliberative body diminishes the side that works for more inclusive human rights for all. Withdrawing is not the answer in situations such as this. The appropriate response if the U.S. is concerned about bias from its fellow Council members would be to engage. Part of engaging is listening to the other side to see if there might be something in what they say that makes sense. Are any of the criticisms made by the Human Rights Council regarding the human rights records of the United States and Israel valid? If the nations making the criticisms have really bad human rights records, does that mean that what they are saying about the USA and Israel is 100% wrong? Perhaps their statements could be wrong, but it isn’t the human rights record of the critic that make a statement valid or invalid. It is the truth or falsity of the statement itself.

Israel and the USA are not above criticism. Often the USA criticizes other nations because of their police brutality and bigotry. That criticism might be valid even though the USA is also guilty of high levels of police brutality and official bigotry. You often need a friend to point out to you what you can’t see for yourself. You can listen to see if there is truth in what your friend is telling you, or you can storm off in an indignant and childish huff. Our withdrawal from the Human Rights Council under the Trump Administration is childish, and it deprives the United States of the face to face feedback at the Human Rights Council it needs, and deprives the world of the USA in deliberations about global human rights.

In 2006, the Human Rights Council was created after its predecessor, the U.N.’s Human Rights Commission, was dissolved for failing to deliver on its mandate to protect rights and for allowing countries with abysmal human rights records to become members. At the time, President George W. Bush refused to join for three years, over concerns that the new body wasn’t much of an improvement.

Most activists and U.N. diplomats consider the reconstituted Human Rights Council an improvement over its predecessor. Its 47 members are elected by the U.N. General Assembly, through regional quotas, and serve three-year terms, with no more than two consecutive terms.

Because of this formula, countries with human rights records that have been criticized by the U.S. or its allies sometimes end up serving as members. Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China, and Russia are among those that have been members of the Council.

In 2012 Syria was nominated in its regional group, even as the Assad regime was violently cracking down on its opponents. Intense lobbying by the U.S. and its allies prevented Syria’s election then.

The Human Rights Council periodically reviews the human rights performance of every nation (regardless if they are a member or not). Each nation is reviewed by the member nations of the Human Rights Council every 4.5 years. There is also a shadow report prepared by non-governmental organizations which is often better documented and thorough than those prepared by member governments. Normally, nations publish the findings of these reports to either indicate areas that need improvement or to refute the findings of the Council. Only the U.S. media totally ignores these reports which routinely criticize U.S. racism, mass incarceration, and brutal police behavior. This link lists the 668 recommendations the Human Rights Council has made to the USA.

Here are a few examples out of the 668 recommendations:

  • Thailand recommended the USA: Treat migrant children in detention with due respect to human rights and work with neighbouring countries to address migrant smuggling challenges in order to end human trafficking.
  • Israel recommended the USA: Promote actions to eradicate sexual and domestic violence.
  • Brazil recommended the USA: Consider alternatives to the detention of migrants, particularly children.
  • Sweden recommended the USA: Halt the detention of immigrant families and children, seek alternatives to detention and end use of detention for reason of deterrence.
  • Azerbaijan recommended the USA: Put an end to the practice of secret detention.
  • Germany recommended the USA: Engage further in the common fight for the prohibition of torture, ensuring accountability and victims' compensation and enable the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment to visit every part of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and to conduct unmonitored interviews.
  • China recommended the USA: Fully disclose the abuse of torture by its Intelligence Agency, ensure the accountability of the persons responsible, and agree to unrestricted visit by the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment to Guantanamo facilities.
  • Bolivia recommended the USA: Define torture as a federal offense in line with the Convention against Torture and investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible of crimes of extraterritorial torture.
  • Norway recommended the USA: That measures be taken to eradicate all forms of torture and ill-treatment of detainees by military or civilian personnel, in any territory of jurisdiction, and that any such acts be thoroughly investigated.
  • Cyprus recommends the USA: Increases its efforts to eliminate alleged brutality and use of excessive force by law enforcement officials against, inter alia, Latino and African American persons and undocumented migrants, and to ensure that relevant allegations are investigated and that perpetrators are prosecuted.

The U.S. withdrew from U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, in October 2017 over allegations that it was anti-Israel and because it had allowed Palestinian Authority to join as a member state.

In January 2018, the U.S. announced it would cut funding in half to U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, the U.N. program that provides education and health care for Palestinian refugees.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement criticizing the decision to withdraw from the Human Rights Council: “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.”

Recently the High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized the U.S. separation of migrant children from their parents. The UN has reported that poverty is increasing in the United States and that levels of bigotry are also on the rise. Do we listen and consider or get angry and leave? Our decision says a great deal of our maturity as a nation. What this decision shows is that, under the Trump administration, the United States does not care about human rights being respected.

About the Author

Bruce Knotts

Bruce Knotts is the Director of the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations. He was born and raised in Southern California. He got his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Pepperdine University and his Master’s Degree in International Education from the Monterey Institute of...


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