The US has a point leaving the UN Human Rights Council, even if Donald Trump's reasoning is flawed

The withdrawal surely has much more to do with an ideological distaste for multilateral engagement than a belief that the body is beyond repair – it's another symbol of the America First policy Trump campaigned on

Will Gore
Wednesday 20 June 2018 15:53
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US withdraws from UN Human Rights Council

Talk about doubling-down. As the world expresses horror at Trump’s family separation policy on America’s southern border, the US decides that now is the time to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). It’s cocking a snook on a grand scale.

While the timing of the announcement seems extraordinary, however, American unease with the UNHRC is longstanding. When the body was established in 2006, then-president George W Bush refused to join, concerned that it would be little different to its predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights, which had been widely criticised for accepting as members countries with poor human rights records.

Only in 2009 did the US take up membership, although even then the Obama administration expressed frustration at the council’s failure to have more of an impact in its early years. John Bolton, who was the US ambassador to the UN at the time the UNHRC was created – and who is now back as Trump’s national security adviser – contemporaneously described Obama’s decision to join as “like getting on board the Titanic after it’s hit the iceberg”.

In subsequent years, criticisms of the UNHRC have continued, mutating now into the reasons cited by the US for its withdrawal. And whatever your view on Trump, it is hard to conclude that those criticisms are wholly unfounded.

While at all times the majority of the 47 rotating national members have been free, democratic countries, a significant number have been states which are not noted for their domestic human rights protections. Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, Indonesia and Cuba have all at various times held a seat on the council.

There is also the Israeli question. Israel is the only country to be a permanent item on the UNHRC’s agenda, placing it under a regular spotlight. That may not be unreasonable in light of the situation on the ground for many Palestinians, but to single out Israel in this way inevitably raises questions about fairness. There are, after all, other countries in which questions about human rights (and alleged abuses) are perennial.

Still, if criticisms of the UNHRC are not without foundation, it is also true that it has been much more active than its predecessor in examining human rights violations – and has been more successful than the commission was in encouraging states to take steps to improve their records. The withdrawal of America from the council’s membership surely has much more to do with an ideological distaste for multilateral engagement than a belief that the body is beyond repair.

Bolton may have emboldened Trump in this regard, but it plainly symbolises the America First policy which brought the president to power and which underpins his administration’s political philosophy (such as it is, beyond simply the egotism of the man at the top). Let’s not forget that one of Trump’s early acts was to take America out of Unesco (the UN’s cultural, scientific and educational branch). He has also famously taken the US out of the Paris climate agreement.

The president’s isolationist approach was on display during the recent G7 summit too, as he lambasted his allies and abandoned a previously agreed joint statement setting out shared goals. Nafta (the North American Free Trade Agreement, which binds the economies of America, Canada and Mexico) may be the next casualty, if Trump decides to up the ante over trade even further.

All this helps to explain why we shouldn’t see the UNHRC withdrawal only through the prism of America’s present migrant detention policy (vile though it is), nor only in the context of the council’s own operational record. Rather, this latest measure is part of a broader, much more worrying shift in American attitudes to global engagement, which paints multilateralism as liberal hogwash and nationalism as the key to future success for the US – and indeed for others.

The United Nations has, despite various disagreements – a few crises even – been an enormously successful vehicle for international cooperation since the end of the Second World War. It has proved that the failure of its predecessor, the League of Nations, was not the inevitable corollary of attempts at global collaboration.

It has worked, however, because key members have, even when critical, stayed inside the tent and worked for reform from within. Having left Unesco, and having withdrawn from the UNHRC – and heartened perhaps by the success of his solo diplomacy over North Korea – is it really that unthinkable that Trump will ultimately take America out of the UN altogether?

That would doubtless encourage despots everywhere. Then again, when you look at Trump, he’s not very unlike one himself.

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