Trump Administration Said to Be Mulling Withdrawal From UN Human Rights Council

By Patrick Goodenough | February 27, 2017 | 4:18am EST
The U.N. Human Rights Council is located at the U.N. Palace of Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP Photo, File)

(Update: Adds comment from U.S. Mission in Geneva)

( – The U.N. Human Rights Council opens a regular four-week session on Monday, amid reports that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing from a body which its predecessor chose to embrace despite acknowledging its many flaws.

Citing unnamed “sources in regular contact with former and current U.S. officials,” Politico reported Saturday that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s office had initiated a series of requests suggesting “that he is questioning the value of the U.S. belonging to the Human Rights Council.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Mission in Geneva said he had no response to offer on the report, “beyond [the] fact that the U.S. is actively involved in the session that started today.”

President Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the U.N., and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley questioned the council’s worth at her confirmation hearing last month.

“What is the goal of the Human Rights Council when they allow Cuba and China to serve on those?” she asked. “They are basically protecting their own interests, while they’re going after other countries to make sure they give them a hard time. And so, do we want to be a part of that?”

One of the criticisms most often raised by U.S. officials about the Geneva-based HRC since its creation in 2006 is the presence of rights-abusing governments on the U.N.’s top human rights body.

At no time over the past decade have more than 25 of the council’s 47 members (53 percent) been countries characterized by Freedom House as “free.” At its worst, last year, only 18 members (38 percent) were “free.”

This year, one in four of the elected members are rights-abusing autocracies.

A second major criticism is the council’s relentless focus on Israel, while some of the world’s most egregious abusive situations are often ignored.

In her Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony, Haley noted that over the past decade, the HRC “has passed 62 resolutions condemning the reasonable actions Israel takes to defend its security. Meanwhile the world’s worst human rights abusers in Syria, Iran, and North Korea received far fewer condemnations. This cannot continue.”

The actual number of HRC resolutions condemning Israel since 2006 is 67, according to data compiled by the NGO Human Rights Voices. Next comes Syria’s Assad regime, at 22, Burma at 15, Sudan at 14, Somalia at 11 and North Korea at 10.


In many cases countries with poor rights records have not faced a single critical HRC resolution. They include Cuba, China, Ethiopia, Laos, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.

The two key criticisms were cited by the Bush administration when it decided not to join or cooperate with the HRC. Its successor, which came in pledging to deepen U.N. engagement in general, reversed course in 2009, still critical of the HRC but arguing that it could best achieve change from within.

The council’s problems, however, are largely systemic: Unless a majority of U.N. member-states chooses otherwise, members of the HRC will continue to be elected in a secret General Assembly ballot, needing a simple rather than super-majority of votes to succeed.

Candidates are put forward by their geographic groups, and often, “closed slates” are offered in elections, with the same number of candidates submitted as there are seats available.

Africa and Asia, the groups accounting for the largest number of countries with widely-criticized human rights records, have 13 seats on the HRC each, while the Western group, Latin America and Eastern Europe groups have just seven, eight and six seats respectively.

The anti-Israel bias is driven largely by the fact that, out of 192 U.N. member-states, Israel alone is targeted with a permanent agenda item. Every time the council holds a regular session Israel stands to be examined and condemned, irrespective of crises elsewhere in the world.

When the HRC held a review in 2011 of its first five years, the Obama administration tried but failed to have the Israel agenda item removed.

Still, it maintains that its HRC engagement was effective. In an “exit memo” last month, outgoing ambassador Samantha Power argued that U.S. leadership had eased some of the pressure on Israel.

“[T]hrough our leadership in the Council since 2009 we have succeeded in getting the body to expand its focus, reducing by half the share of country-specific resolutions on Israel,” she said.

Human Rights Voices data show that the proportion of total HRC resolutions targeting Israel did drop, although only in 2011 (from 40 percent in 2008, 43.7 percent in 2009, and 44.4 percent in 2010, to 29.1 percent in 2011.)

‘Foolish’ to abandon

Despite concerns, one of the HRC’s most outspoken critics argued on Sunday for the U.S. not to walk away.

“Should the U.S. leave the morally corrupt U.N. Human Rights Council?” asked Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based NGO U.N. Watch. “Walking out would feel good – but probably only make things worse.

“There’s a reason that France, Russia, China and every other world power invests time, money and political capital to campaign for a seat at the U.N. Human Rights Council: to gain influence in a consequential world body,” he said.

“Like it or not, the UNHRC’s decisions, translated into every language, influence the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people around the globe.”

“If the U.S. wants to be a winner, it would be foolish to abandon the coveted 3-year term [2017-2019] that it just won a few months ago.”

In testimony before two House Foreign Relations subcommittees early this month, Neuer contended that the U.S. needs a “Moynihan-type” envoy to the HRC, in reference to Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who served in 1975-76.

“To have someone who would come to the Human Rights Council, pick up the phone to the high commissioner and say ‘if you do x, y or z you’re in a lot of trouble’ someone who would speak out for human rights – I don’t think that kind of presence would give one iota of legitimacy.”

“The Obama administration did become a cheerleader of the council. That was wrong,” Neuer hold the lawmakers. “But someone who would come to the council and take the floor as Moynihan did in the ‘Zionism is racism’ debate [in 1975], would actually be a contribution to human rights and to combating anti-Israel bias. So I would like to see the new administration send an ambassador of that nature.”

(The “Zionism is racism” resolution, passed by the General Assembly in 1975 at the instigation of the Arab bloc, was eventually repealed in 1991.)

The HRC’s 34th session runs from Monday through March 24.

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