The United States has withdrawn from the United Nations’ top human rights body accusing it of “chronic bias” against Israel, in a move that was criticised by human rights groups and described as regrettable by foreign leaders.
The decision to pull out of the UN Human Rights Council was announced on Tuesday by Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN.
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“We take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organisation that makes a mockery of human rights,” she said alongside US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington, DC.
Minutes later, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, called the announcement by US President Donald Trump’s administration “disappointing, if not really surprising”.
“Given the state of human rights in today’s world, the US should be stepping up, not stepping back,” he added.
The European Union said the move “risks undermining the role of the US as a champion and supporter of democracy on the world stage”, while British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called it “regrettable”.
On the other hand, Israel, a major ally of the US, praised Washington’s “courageous” move.
"Disappointing, if not really surprising, news. Given the state of #HumanRights in today's world, the US should be stepping up, not stepping back" — UN Human Rights Chief #Zeid following USA decision to withdraw from U.N. Human Rights Council.#StandUp4HumanRights
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) June 19, 2018
The US’ announcement comes after the council voted last month to probe the killing of scores of Palestinian protesters in the Gaza Strip and accused Israel of excessive use of force.
Al Jazeera’s Rosiland Jordan, reporting from Washington, DC, said the US exit from the 47-member Geneva-based body” did not come as a shock”, as it was something that Haley had talked about almost from the moment that she became the US ambassador to the UN in early 2017.
“She was quite adamant at the time that the council held a very deep anti-Israel bias and that the US was going to try to root it out; otherwise it would leave the council,” said Jordan.
“But the primary reason why the US is pulling out of the council now is because of its efforts to reduce or eliminate of the unfair criticism, in the US’ view, of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians,” she added.
“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 vision of human rights – even though a number of international human rights groups are roundly criticising the Trump administration for leaving the council.”
In their remarks, both Haley and Pompeo said the decision had been made after a long year of efforts to shame the council into reform.
Haley said the move “is not a retreat from human rights commitments” and accused the council of being “a protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias”.
“Look at the council membership, and you see an appalling disrespect for the most basic rights,” she said Haley, citing Venezuela, China, Cuba and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Child separation policy
The Trump administration’s move also comes as it faces widespread criticism for detaining children separated from their immigrant parents at the US-Mexico border.
On Monday, al-Hussein called on Washington to halt its child separation policy.
“The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable,” said the top UN human rights official.
Washington’s withdrawal is the latest US rejection of multilateral engagement after it pulled out of the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal.
Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Program, said Trump’s “misguided policy of isolationism only harms American interests.”
Twelve rights and aid groups, including Human Rights First, Save the Children and CARE, had earlier warned Pompeo the US withdrawal would “make it more difficult to advance human rights priorities and aid victims of abuse around the world.”
For the Trump administration, it's more important to defend Israel from criticism by the UN Human Rights Council than to defend human rights victims in Syria, North Korea, Myanmar and South Sudan–a sadly one-dimensional human rights policy. https://t.co/dtjveAySOG pic.twitter.com/qQSD9Eq20m
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) June 19, 2018
In May, the council voted to send a team of international investigators to probe the deadly shootings of Palestinian demonstrators by Israeli snipers in the Gaza Strip during weeks-long rallies protests the Great March of Return along the fence with Israel.
The US and Australia cast the only no votes at the time, while the Israeli ambassador in Geneva attacked the council for “spreading lies against Israel.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera from New York, Louis Charbonneau, the UN director at Human Rights Watch, said: “Unfortunately the US is placing protecting Israel from criticism for its abuses over all else”.
He added that despite some shortcomings, the Human Rights Council “has done some very good work, highlighting human rights abuses around the world, scrutinising and bringing facts to light which enable us to holding these countries to account”.
Charbonneau cited a commission of inquiry set up for war-torn Syria, saying that it “has been working for the last seven years uncovering ghastly abuses and reporting publicly on them”; the establishment of a fact-finding mission on Myanmar, “where we’ve seen ethnic cleansing on a scale that is mind-blogging”; as well as “looking at the problems in South Sudan, Burundi, Congo and North Korea”.
The US’ move is unprecedented in the 12-year history of the council, as no country has ever dropped out voluntarily.
Libya was suspended in 2011 after a government crackdown on protesters.
Boycotting the council
The council’s 47 members are elected by the UN’s General Assembly for a three-year period, and can only serve for two terms in a row. A specific number of seats is allocated for each region of the globe.
Under President George W Bush, the US boycotted the body for three years after its establishment 12 years ago.
“When the Human Rights Council was first stood up back in 2006 the ambassador to the UN at the time was John Bolton, who persuaded then-President Bush not to join the body for the reasons that Haley today spelled out,” said Al Jazeera’s Jordan.
“It’s worth pointing out that Bolton is now the national security adviser and certainly much of his views about the UN have not changed in those 12 years,” she added.
Under President Barack Obama, who was sworn in as president in 2009, the US was elected to the body for the maximum two consecutive terms. After a year off, it was re-elected in 2016.