The US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has announced the withdrawal, calling the organisation a “cesspool of political bias”.

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on June 20, 2018

Speaking at the State Department in Washington DC on 19 June 2018, Haley said the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) “has been a protector of human rights abusers”, and showed a political bias by overly focusing on Israel.

Haley outlined how the US had been threatening to leave the UNHRC for more than a year.

She said the US decision to quit was motivated by concerns over the UNHRC’s membership and general approach to addressing human rights violations. She added it should not be mischaracterised as a general rejection of human rights issues.

“I want to make it crystal clear that this step is not a retreat from human rights commitments. On the contrary, we take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain part of a hypocritical and self-serving organisation that makes a mockery of human rights.”

Tensions between the US and the UN have recently been heightened. On 18 June 2018, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein strongly criticised the US policy of separating undocumented immigrant children from their parents. He described the border policy as abusive and demanded the Trump administration end it immediately.

The Trump administration has recently been the subject of intense and widespread criticism for its border policy.

In a statement made through the United Nations Human Rights Office’s Twitter account, Zeid described the US exit as “disappointing, if not really surprising”.

“Given the state of human rights in today’s world, the US should be stepping up, not stepping back.”

In a statement through his spokesperson, Secretary-General António Guterres said he would have “much preferred” the US remain part of the UNHRC, which “plays a very important role in the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide”.

The turbulent relationship between the US and the UNHRC

The council is made up of 47 member nations and was created in 2006. It investigates possible human rights breaches in UN member states and also addresses thematic human rights issues such as arbitrary detention, human trafficking, women’s rights, LGBT rights and the rights of racial and ethnic minorities.

It was formed after the dissolution of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). The UNCHR had been heavily criticised for admitting member nations that were violating human rights including China, Russia, Zimbabwe, Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

The UNHRC has faced criticisms along similar lines as member nations such as China, Russia, Venezuela and Cuba have gained membership despite their own human rights breaches.

In 2006, the US Ambassador to the UN in 2006 at the time, John Bolton, was a vocal critic of the formation of the new body.

The US did not become a member of the UNHRC until 2009 when Barack Obama elected to join. Member nations can serve three-year terms but the US is now leaving its current term halfway through.

Reactions to the US exit from the UNHRC

The exit has been criticised by prominent human rights and civil rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

There has been some concern from diplomats that the US decision to leave the UNHRC will embolden countries such as Russia and Egypt which have resented what they see as the UN interfering in domestic issues.

Al Jazeera correspondent Rosiland Jordan said the move “did not come as a shock” and was heavily linked to the relationship between the US and Israel.

“The primary reason why the US is pulling out of the council now is because of its efforts to reduce or eliminate the unfair criticism, in the US’s view, of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

“In the larger scheme of things, this really is a way of standing by its ally, Israel, but also using the opportunity to try to exert its own rights.”

The move can also be placed in the context of the Trump administration’s ideological opposition to multilateral agreements and bodies. During his presidency, the US has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord, terminated the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran nuclear agreement, and moved towards more protectionist trade policies.