US quits ‘hypocritical’ UN Human Rights Council
WASHINGTON/UNITED NATIONS - The United States withdrew from a "hypocritical and self-serving" United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday over what it called chronic bias against Israel and a lack of reform, a move activists warned would make advancing human rights globally even more difficult.
Standing with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley slammed Russia, China, Cuba and Egypt for thwarting US efforts to reform the council. She also criticized countries which shared US values and encouraged Washington to remain, but "were unwilling to seriously challenge the status quo."
Washington's withdrawal is the latest US rejection of multilateral engagement after it pulled out of the Paris climate agreement and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
"Look at the council membership, and you see an appalling disrespect for the most basic rights," said Haley, citing Venezuela, China, Cuba and Democratic Republic of Congo. She did not mention Saudi Arabia, which rights groups pushed to be suspended in 2016 over killings of civilians in the Yemen war.
Among reforms the United States had pushed for was to make it easier to kick out member states with egregious rights records. Currently a two-thirds majority vote by the 193-member UN General Assembly is needed to suspend a member state.
Haley also said the "disproportionate focus and unending hostility toward Israel is clear proof that the council is motivated by political bias, not by human rights." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the US decision.
The United States has long shielded its ally Israel at the United Nations. In citing what it says is bias against Israel, the administration of President Donald Trump could further fuel Palestinian arguments that Washington cannot be a neutral mediator as it prepares to roll out a Middle East peace plan. Washington also relocated its embassy to Jerusalem after recognizing it as the capital of Israel, reversing decades of US policy.
The United States is half-way through a three-year term on the 47-member Geneva-based body and the Trump administration had long threatened to quit if it was not overhauled.
Diplomats from across the globe defended the UN body which the US branded a "cesspool."
Slovenian ambassador Vojislav Suc, who currently holds the council's rotating presidency and has been pushing a faltering reform drive, described the Geneva-based chamber as the best place to trigger action on dangerous rights crises.
"Let me say it very clearly, if human rights issues are not discussed here, in this very room, they have little chance to be dealt with meaningfully anywhere else," he told the council's 38th session, hours after Washington announced its pullout.
Suc further praised the 47-member council as the "only intergovernmental body responding to human rights issues and situations worldwide."
Once he receives formal notification of the US withdrawal, Suc said he would arrange for the American seat to be removed and work with the General Assembly to elect a replacement member.
China, which has on multiple occasions voiced support for multilateral institutions abandoned by US President Donald Trump, portrayed the council as "a major body... to promote the realisation of human rights."
"All delegations attach great importance to this body," said Chinese ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Yu Jianhua.
China currently sits on the council and rights groups have repeatedly criticised Beijing for seeking to stifle criticism of its own conduct.
The European Union assured that it "remains steadfastly and reliably committed to the Human Rights Council," and said it would continue to try to fix the body's problems despite the US withdrawal.
Russia's foreign ministry had earlier accused the US of "gross cynicism" and "disregard" for the UN.
Membership of the council, established in 2006 to replace the disgraced Human Rights Commission, has long been controversial.
Current members include Burundi, the Philippines and Venezuela -- all nations accused of massive abuses against civilians.
Rights groups have criticized the Trump administration for not making human rights a priority in its foreign policy. Critics say this sends a message that the administration turns a blind eye to human rights abuses in some parts of the world.
It also comes as the United States faces intense criticism for detaining children separated from their immigrant parents at the US-Mexico border. UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein on Monday called on Washington to halt its "unconscionable" policy.
"Given the state of human rights in today's world, the US should be stepping up, not stepping back," Zeid said after Haley announced the US withdrawal.
Reuters reported last week that talks on reforming the council had failed to meet Washington's demands, suggesting the Trump administration would quit.
"The Human Rights Council enables abuses by absolving wrongdoers through silence and falsely condemning those that committed no offense," Pompeo said.
Diplomats have said the US withdrawal could bolster countries such as Cuba, Russia, Egypt and Pakistan, which resist what they see as UN interference in sovereign issues.
Haley said the Trump administration's decision to withdraw "is not a retreat" from the US' "human rights commitments."
Twelve rights and aid groups, including Human Rights First, Save the Children and CARE, warned Pompeo the US withdrawal would "make it more difficult to advance human rights priorities and aid victims of abuse around the world."
Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Human Rights Program, said Trump's "misguided policy of isolationism only harms American interests."
The EU said Washington's decision "risks undermining the role of the US as a champion and supporter of democracy on the world stage." British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said it was regrettable and that the council was the "best tool the international community has to address impunity."
First member to withdraw
The Human Rights Council meets three times a year to examine human rights violations worldwide. It has mandated independent investigators to look at situations including Syria, North Korea, Myanmar and South Sudan. Its resolutions are not legally binding but carry moral authority.
When the Council was created in 2006, US President George W. Bush's administration shunned the body.
Under President Barack Obama the United States was elected for a maximum two consecutive terms on the council by the UN General Assembly. After a year off, Washington was re-elected in 2016 for its current third term.
UN officials said the United States would be the first member to withdraw from the council.
Haley said a year ago that Washington was reviewing its membership. The body has a permanent standing agenda item on suspected violations committed by Israel in the illegally occupied Palestinian territories that Washington wanted removed.
The council last month voted to probe the killings in Gaza and accused Israel of using excessive force against unarmed protesters. The United States and Australia cast the only "no" votes.
"The UN Human Rights Council has played an important role in such countries as North Korea, Syria, Myanmar and South Sudan, but all Trump seems to care about is defending Israel," said Human Rights Watch executive director Ken Roth.