The United States government’s reported plan to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council if specific demands are not met shows a lack of commitment to advancing human rights around the world. A senior aide to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson quoted in Foreign Policy and other media accounts indicated that the Trump administration was threatening to withdraw from the council, the UN’s principal human rights body, citing an excessive focus on Israel and its skewed membership.
The UN General Assembly in New York elected the US to a three-year term on the Human Rights Council on October 28, 2016. No country has ever withdrawn from the council after running for election to secure the seat.
“Threatening to walk out of the Human Rights Council rather than working to make it more effective does nothing to improve the council’s performance,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather, it would signal that the Trump administration is not really interested in improving the human rights of vulnerable people around the globe.”
Despite its flaws, the 47-member Human Rights Council has made a real difference on human rights issues worldwide, particularly through focused engagement over many years on North Korea, Syria, Iran, Burma, South Sudan, and Sri Lanka. At the current session in Geneva, for example, the council is expected to extend the mandate of the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which has documented abuses by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and tracked the Syrian government’s attacks on hospitals, schools, and civilians. The council’s Universal Periodic Review has subjected all 193 UN member countries to human rights scrutiny twice since 2008.
The Human Rights Council has adopted more than 1,350 country-specific or thematic resolutions since 2006, placing 30 governments under intense scrutiny. The value of engagement with the council is also illustrated by joint statements during council sessions about troubling rights practices, such as the unprecedented March 2016 US-led statement criticizing China’s crackdown on journalists, lawyers, and human rights defenders.
Through its resolutions, the council has also addressed important thematic issues including counterterrorism, women’s rights, migration, racism, LGBT rights, rights of people with disabilities, and the rights of children.
According to a briefing note prepared by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the council has also held 26 emergency sessions addressing serious human rights violations, including in Libya and Syria in the wake of the “Arab Spring,” as well as in Burundi, the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, and others. The council has also authorized 23 commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions to examine mass-atrocity crimes, collecting evidence and feeding it into formal justice processes to hold violators to account. The council’s independent human rights experts (“Special Procedures”) – 80 individuals holding 57 mandates – are important monitors of human rights and have had significant impact on reducing human rights violations around the world.
The US was first elected to the council under President Barack Obama in 2009. The US served previous three-year-terms in 2010-2012 and 2013-2015. Despite an imperfect record as a council member, the US helped shape some of the body’s decisions with the greatest impact, including to establish a commission of inquiry into abuses in North Korea.
The commission’s 2014 report concluded that the gravity, scale, and nature of the human rights violations in North Korea have no parallel in the contemporary world, and amount to crimes against humanity. Based on that report, the UN Security Council has since held three open discussions addressing North Korea’s bleak human rights record. A similar report on atrocities in Sri Lanka helped pave the way for a major program for transitional justice in that country.
The 11-year-old council was created in March 2006, to replace the widely criticized Commission on Human Rights. While strengthening the council’s membership standards remains an important concern, progress has been made. In 2016, Human Rights Watch raised serious questions about the fitness of two members who were seeking re-election: Saudi Arabia, which has been involved in serious laws-of-war violations in Yemen, and Russia, which has played an instrumental role in sustaining the Syrian government’s brutal campaign to retake Aleppo and other parts of the war-ravaged country. Saudi Arabia was re-elected in October on a slate proposed by its Asian regional group that offered no alternative, but Russia lost its seat in a competitive contest by two votes. Other abusive states that have lost competitive elections for the council include Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Sri Lanka. Public campaigns led Syria and Iran to withdraw their candidacies before votes were cast.
“It would be ironic for the US to withdraw from the same council that the Russians just unsuccessfully tried to join,” Sarah Margon said. “Russia was deeply embarrassed when it was voted off the council in October, but now the Trump administration is threatening to join Moscow on the sidelines.”
The US should instead work to improve the council’s membership by pressing regional groups of countries to end the practice of allowing countries to “win” election without opposition. Human Rights Watch has long highlighted the need for competitive regional slates in the annual elections for council membership, rather than uncontested slates that virtually guarantee a seat for all those in the running regardless of their human rights record. Last year, members of the Western Group, including the US, campaigned on a non-competitive slate, as did candidates from Africa and Asia. The Eastern European group allowed a competitive election process, which Russia lost.
“Many council members, including the US, have a less than stellar human rights record, but by joining the council they promise to raise their standards and hold each other accountable,” said Margon. “If the US goal is to improve, rather than undermine, the Human Rights Council, history shows it has a much better shot by supporting competitive elections and pushing from within for council members to speak out on abuses.”
The Trump administration has also expressed concerns at what it sees as the council’s excessive focus on Israel. Despite the council’s broad record of accomplishment, Human Rights Watch has also long noted the council’s disproportionate focus on Israel. But the answer is not silence over a country that deserves criticism but more regular attention to others whose abuse is neglected.
In the past, actively participating in council discussions allowed the US and other concerned governments to focus attention on such serious rights abusers as China, Syria, North Korea, and Sri Lanka.
It is unclear which country would take the open seat left by the US if the Trump administration follows through on its threat to withdraw, Human Rights Watch said. The UN resolution creating the council dictates that any successor would be another state from the group that includes Western Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel.
“If the US withdraws from the council, it is likely to be replaced by a government with a commitment to promoting human rights,” Margon said. “But it would be unfortunate if the Trump administration chose to lead from behind on human rights.”