The United States announced Tuesday that it will leave the United Nations Human Rights Council.
This is hardly surprising. As Ambassador Nikki Haley explained in Geneva last year, the Human Rights Council remains beset by three fundamental problems.
1. Bias against Israel.
According to UN Watch, the council had adopted 169 condemnatory resolutions on countries as of the end of May. Of those, nearly half (47 percent) focused on Israel. In addition, the council has convened 28 special sessions to address human rights violations or related emergencies. Of those 28 sessions, eight focused on Israel.
Moreover, Israel is the only country subject to a separate agenda item: Item 7, labeled “Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories.” Every other country is examined under Item 4, “Human rights situations that require the council’s attention.”
The council’s fixation on Israel is absurd. By spending exponentially more time on Israel than on North Korea or Syria, the council only underscores the politicization and bias of its agenda.
2. Human rights abusers sit on the council.
Governments deemed “not free” and “partly free” by Freedom House historically have comprised a majority of the council’s members. Not even the world’s most repressive regimes have been excluded.
Currently, 14 of the 47 members of the council (including Burundi, China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela) are ranked “not free” by Freedom House. This is the highest number of “not free” countries in council history, indicating that the majority of the world’s governments see no problem with electing human rights violators to the U.N.’s highest human rights body.
Even defenders of the Human Rights Council acknowledge this problem. As Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, noted, “[T]he Trump administration is correct that [membership] is suboptimal … . To make matters worse, some abusive governments try to join the council in the hope of protecting themselves and their kind from condemnation.”
3. Consistent failure to address serious human rights situations equally and objectively.
In stark contrast to its obsessive focus on Israel, the council is notably incurious about the human rights situations in some of the world’s most oppressive counties.
For instance, the Human Rights Council has never passed a condemnatory resolution on China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Zimbabwe, despite their terrible records of religious persecution, punishment of political dissent, hostility to freedom of the press, unequal rights for women, and use of force against civil society and government opponents, respectively.
One can also look at the Universal Periodic Review, a process under which every country undergoes a review of its human rights practices and receives recommendations for improvement. According to UPR Info, the country that has received the most recommendations for improvement is the United States.
That’s right. The Human Rights Council’s process has concluded that the U.S. has more need of human rights advice than Cuba, Iran, and Sudan. Israel is also in the top 25, naturally, right ahead of China.
For over a year, the U.S. has tried to rally support among other member states to reform the council to address these problems. Unfortunately, most governments either prefer a weak, biased council or are unwilling to devote the effort needed to reform it.
This is not a recent development in response to the Trump administration. The Obama administration met similar resistance when it proposed reforms at the mandatory 2011 review of the council.
Nonetheless, over the past year, the U.S. has tried again. Led by Haley and strongly supported by U.S. diplomats in Geneva, New York, Washington, and around the world, the U.S. has engaged bilaterally and multilaterally to promote reforms to address anti-Israel bias, membership quality, and improve the council’s efficiency.
They have been met with disinterest and hostility. Even European governments and human rights groups have opposed the U.S. reform effort out of fear that countries hostile to human rights might seize the opportunity to weaken the council.
This is a self-fulfilling prophesy that condemns the council to its current gravely disappointing status quo. Worse, as long as this fear exists, any future reform effort will be stillborn.
Supporters of the Human Rights Council will criticize the U.S. decision as another example of the Trump administration’s rejection of multilateral engagement. This is wrong. The administration could have left the council any time in the past year, but it did not. Instead, it sought to work within the U.N. to fix the council. Only when other member states rebuffed these efforts did the U.S. pull back.
Sadly, the U.S. seems to be the only government that seriously wants the Human Rights Council to promote universal respect and protection of human rights, and to confront fundamental freedoms in a fair and equal manner. Unless other member states commit to fixing the council’s problems, the U.S. is better off focusing its time and effort on advancing human rights through other venues and means.