America’s withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) – a cause for concern for internationalism or an opportunity to reflect?
On the 19th of June 2018, United States of America (USA) Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Nikki Haley, announced that the USA would be leaving the Human Rights Council, noting that “we take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.” The Trump administration’s recent decision has been at the heart of contentious debate and it has been viewed as unpopular amongst the international community. Boris Johnson, the erstwhile Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom (UK) stated that the UK aspires to see reform in the Human Rights Council but that they are committed to “working to strengthen the Council from within.” He further stated that “Britain’s support for the human rights council remains steadfast. It is the best tool the international community has to address impunity in an imperfect world and to advance many of our international goals.”
The Human Rights Council (the Council) was created by General Assembly (GA) Resolution 60/25 of 2006 as a response to growing concerns around the ineffectiveness of its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission. It is mandated to promote the implementation of human rights, to work towards the prevention of human rights violations and make recommendations to the GA for the further development of international law in the field of human rights. The Council, however, has not been free of global politics.
Well renowned international law scholar, John Dugard highlights how “the Council is no less politicised than its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission”. With Africa having the majority of seats in the Council and Asia following suit, developing nations are able to rally amongst themselves to advance their common agenda through a majority vote. This may be construed as an element which has contributed to the politicization of the body.
The USA has been very vocal about the disapproval of the politicization of the Human Rights Commission and it was in fact one of the biggest propellants in the proposal to replace the Commission with the now standing Council, having refused to join the Council in 2006 but later returned in 2009 under the leadership of President Barack Obama. While the contentions of the USA raise important questions about the ineffectiveness of the Council in carrying out its mandate, the establishment of the United Nations (UN) system did not make assumptions that the challenges will come to an end, as it was established to find solutions to current and ongoing global challenges. Requiring all global actors to see through all multilateral commitments, the UN has played a major role in addressing many global challenges. It is in this context that the withdrawal of the USA is unfortunate because it goes against the principles of multilateralism which are crucial for addressing these challenges.
Another problematic issue is that the USA has retained its permanent seat and veto powers in the UN Security Council, which has arguably been ineffective in providing humanitarian relief in regions which need it most. Often the USA takes aggressive and possibly politically motivated positions on matters of armed conflict, such as the use of chemical weapons in Syria last year. The proposition here is that the USA has not been open to reform in the Security Council by retaining its permanency and it has further acted with political bias in exercising its veto powers in the Security Council and thus it becomes difficult to resolve the disjuncture between its demands within the Human Rights Council and its position in the Security Council.
The withdrawal from the Council also calls into question the USA’s role in international human rights jurisprudence and whether the UNHRC needs to start re-evaluating the deteriorating state of human rights under the Trump administration, which is probably one of the main reasons for the US withdrawal and an attempt to escape its own liabilities.
USA’s condemnation of its own political allies is a cause for concern as it may reinforce speculation of the USA’s plans to distance itself completely from the international community or, even worse, the USA’s intention to change the structure and processes of internationalism. It is not clear at this point what the decision seeks to achieve but what is clear is the USA’s impatience with the failure of the Council to see through its reformative aspirations such as the impunity afforded to perceived human rights violators like Venezuela and Cuba.
While some of these concerns are valid and concessions have been made about the politicization of the body, Trump’s policies make it clear that the USA itself has issues concerning human rights allegations as well, the most blatant example being the current crisis surrounding immigrant children being separated from parents at the border.
Sarah Margon, Washington representative of Human Rights Watch has articulated this incident as “a larger space in which the United States is backing away from any role as a human rights defender.” While this is disappointing, it is not surprising given the USA’s prioritization of its political influence. This retreat is concerning as it sends out a message that the USA is closing itself off to the rest of the world. However, this move does highlight a broader pattern by the Trump administration of stepping back from international agreements and forums under the president’s “America First” policy, retreating from multiple multilateral accords and consensus since Trump came into office.
The negativity flowing from this move is alarming but it does provide an opportunity for reflection as to the effectiveness of UNHRC and UN as a whole. “Multilateralism is the essence of humanity. If we don’t stand for that then we stand for nothing.” We can’t afford unilateral approaches to global issues, more so in the promotion and protection of human rights, which are universal.
Advocate Tseliso Thipanyane is a CEO at the South African Human Rights Commission and Ms Khanye Mase is an Intern at the CEO’s office.