US exit from UN Human Rights Council widens gaps for human rights NGOs, experts warn

A view of the U.N. Human Rights Council special session held May 2018. Photo by: Elma Okic / U.N.

UNITED NATIONS — International human rights organizations will suffer the loss of United Nations access and a fading ally as Washington retreats from the U.N. Human Rights Council, experts say.

Twelve organizations in human rights, aid, and U.N.-monitoring, issued a letter warning U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the “counterproductive” decision following U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s announcement Tuesday afternoon that the U.S. would leave the 47-country member council.

“This decision is counterproductive to American national security and foreign policy interests and will make it more difficult to advance human rights priorities and aid victims of abuse around the world,” organizations including CARE International and Save the Children, wrote in the letter.

While the U.S.’ withdrawal from the body was long anticipated by many U.N. observers, the move still comes as a blow to organizations working to press for human rights in a narrowing space at the U.N.

“We will always say, NGOs should have a bigger role and be more involved in the work of the council. That said, it has come a long way in terms of how NGOs can participate and interact,” said Natalie Samarasinghe, executive director of United Nations Association-UK, one of the groups that signed the letter.

“There are many more openings for NGOs with the Human Rights Council than other parts of the system. It is a hugely important forum for us.”  

The loss of the U.S. from the Geneva-based council halfway through its three-year term could also lead to more openings for known human rights offenders, such as China and Saudi Arabia, to increase their influence, said Peter Yeo, president of the Better World Campaign at the U.N. Foundation.

“The Human Rights Council remains the go-to place to tackle HR issues, like it or not, and the fact the U.S. is not going to be a member of the Human Rights Council leaves space for others and that is unfortunate,” he said.

“With American leadership, we have had some really significant human rights achievements on North Korea, Syria, and LGBT rights. These are meaningful, significant resolutions and are less likely to happen now that the U.S. is not on the council.”

Haley cited the failure for reform, “chronic bias” against Israel and the recent election of countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as reasons for the U.S.’ exit from the organization. It does not signal a broader move away from the U.S.’ human rights work, she said.

“We want to make it crystal clear 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 a part of a hypocritical, self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights,” Haley said.

The council has a standing resolution — called Item 7 — that addresses Israel’s treatment of Palestinians during each council session. And since its inception in 2006, the council has passed more than 70 resolutions condemning Israel, 10 times more than it has condemned Iran, according to the Washington Post. This spring, it passed five Israel resolutions alone in one week, around the time of Gaza protests, during which Israeli troops killed more than 100 and wounded several thousand Palestinians.

The U.S. said last year that its continued participation in the council would depend on reform, and launched a campaign to eliminate Item 7, among other changes.

Election to the council is not dependent on a country’s own human rights record, but rather influenced in part by a “clean slate” election process, in which regional blocs can put forward the exact number of candidates to match the number of available seats on the rotating membership.  

“It does not matter if it is South Sudan — there is no contest and that is a problem,” Samarasinghe said. “There are lots of really sensible ideas on how to avoid clean slate elections, but my understanding is that the U.S. was pushing for reorganization of the council's agenda — specific agenda items.”

The Trump administration’s decision to leave the council — first threatened by Haley about a year ago — is the latest move by the U.S. to distance itself from the U.N. Last year, it withdrew funding from the U.N. Population Fund, falsely stating that the health organization works to support coerced abortions and sterilizations in China. It also left the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The U.S. withdrawing from the council “will betray” its legacy of protecting and promoting human rights, according to Abby Maxman, president of Oxfam America.

“Especially at this time of unprecedented global crisis — with more people forced to flee their homes than any time since World War II, inequality reaching staggering heights, and the effects of climate change threatening to alter the very face of this planet we all call home — we must commit to solving global problems together with global partners. The United States can achieve a great deal of this agenda as a partner or none of it as an antagonist,” she said in a statement.

George W. Bush administration did not join the council when it was created, but the Obama administration stepped into its folds in 2009. During that time, the level of attention Israel’s rights transgressions received “plummeted,” says Yeo, citing U.S. influence.

“When the world comes together to talk and to fight for human rights, the U.S. should be at the table. It is a matter of principle. We believe it is important to speak out when these types of decisions are made. It is more of a principled statement of concern about this decision [of exiting the council],” he said.

“A lot of people are disappointed that this reform agenda has not been adopted — but that said, the response to the failure to adopt this agenda is ill-considered and the way to sort of resolve our concerns is to engage and fight for what we believe in, as opposed to leaving the council early,” Yeo said. 

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.