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Citizenship

Why the US Withdrawal From the UN Human Rights Council Matters

While others are fighting to be heard, the US is simply bowing out of the conversation, and forfeiting a critical role in the discussion around international human rights.

Rights groups and activists have said that the US’ withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday is a major disappointment for the state of human rights around the world, and could have a major impact on current and future rights issues.

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“The US could be playing a constructive role at the UN Human Rights Council … and there are critical issues where the US’ voice is important,” Daniel Balson, advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International USA, told Global Citizen. “Instead, this administration has decided to pack up and go home. And that’s unfortunate.”

The Human Rights Council is responsible for conducting the Universal Periodic Review — a regular, impartial assessment of the human rights records of every UN member state — and for appointing independent experts to investigate rights violations.

However, both the current and previous US administrations have criticized the group for allowing member states accused of serious rights violations, like Saudi Arabia and Congo, to serve on the 47-member council.

On Tuesday, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley announced that the US was leaving the council because the panel had become a “protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias.”

But activists and politicians alike say that if the US had hoped to clean up that “cesspool,” it has surrendered its power to do so by leaving the council, giving the very member states the US has expressed concern about greater reign over the panel.

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“By withdrawing from the council, we lose our leverage and allow the council’s bad actors to follow their worst impulses unchecked — including running roughshod over Israel,” Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House committee that oversees the State Department, said in a statement.

Since the US announced its departure from the council, Russia — whose rights record advocacy groups have impugned — has put forward its candidacy for the open seat.

US concern over the human rights records of other council members is valid — Egypt, China, and Afghanistan all currently sit on the council — and other council members agree that change is necessary, but believe change can only come from having a seat at the table.

“While we agree with the US on the need for reform, our support for this Human Rights Council remains steadfast,” Julian Braithwaite, UK Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, told the council

Activists have also pointed out that the current administration has violated human rights and that it has refused to play an active role in holding other council members accountable for their actions.

“Numerous countries and international NGOs, including Amnesty International, have expressed serious concerns about this administration’s human rights record,” Balson, of Amnesty International, said. “That includes the policy of separating children from asylum seekers and refugees at the border, its refusal to cooperate with an International Criminal Court investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan, and several other issues.

“Frankly, it’s both puzzling and disconcerting to people who care about human rights worldwide.”

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Haley said the US withdrew after her year-long effort to reform the council failed, and, in a letter dated June 20, blamed NGOs and rights groups for that failure.

“You should know that your efforts to block negotiations and thwart reform were a contributing factor in the US decision to withdraw from the Council,” Haley wrote. “Going forward, we encourage you to play a constructive role on behalf of human rights, rather than the deconstructive one you played in this instance.”

But Balson said the US undermined its own efforts to enact change within the council.

“The Trump administration did not nominate an ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council and it hasn’t nominated an ambassador to the US Mission to the UN in Geneva either,” Balson said. “These are two critical roles that would normally be filled by high-level diplomats who would be responsible for helping to drive such reform efforts and they were simply not filled.”

While Haley said that withdrawal from the council was “not a retreat from human rights commitments,” rights groups and activists say otherwise.

“Trump has decided that ‘America First’ means ignoring the suffering of civilians in Syria and ethnic minorities in Myanmar at the United Nations,” Executive Director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth said in a statement.

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Ultimately, the US’ withdrawal from the council is most damaging for what it signals to the world about where the US stands when it comes to fighting for human rights domestically and internationally.

“We have lost a member who has been at the forefront of liberty for generations,” Braithwaite said Wednesday.

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