Foreign Affairs and International Relations

Irrationality of the UNHRC ‘Flight’: A Policy Failure for USA? (2/2)

Vrishank Singhania

The USA would have benefitted by choosing to fight within the HRC. Its exit will bolster China’s clout and will be detrimental to the US itself.

This is the second post in a two part series. Click here to read the first post.

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USA’s Role In the Human Rights Council

This is not the first time that the USA has decided to not be a part of the HRC. It was one of the four countries to oppose the very creation of the HRC in 2006. After its constitution, the Bush Administration announced that it would not run for HRC elections and the US was not an HRC member till 2008. The Obama Administration, however, wanted to try a different approach. They wanted to try and change the HRC from the inside.

US involvement in the HRC has been quite significant. It has led resolutions against numerous countries like Iran, Syria, North Korea, South Sudan, Haiti, Mali, Libya, Sri Lanka and Georgia amongst others. It also diversified the themes that the HRC discussed by lading resolutions on freedom of speech and expression, women’s empowerment and human rights on the internet among other. It spearheaded the efforts which led to the establishment of a Special Rapporteur or fact-finding missions in Syria, Iran, South Sudan and Belarus among others.

The HRC is inherently a political body dominated by blocs such as the OIC, NAM and the Arab League, which usually tend to vote together. The US is one of the few countries with the influence and muscle to form coalitions across blocs. Consider for example the series of resolutions against Iran. Countries which voted for this include Gabon, Ghana, Mauritius, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia among others. Interestingly, since 2011 none of these countries have opposed any resolution against Iran. In fact, several of them have even supported the US-sponsored resolutions against Iran.

The US-led the efforts against Iran by creating a core cross-regional group, which included Colombia, Macedonia, Maldives and Zambia, while enlisting the help of Sweden as the lead sponsor. These resolutions against Iran have received support from across regional blocs, including from OIC members. Several OIC members have also abstained on resolutions against Iran [Abstention is significant because it helps reduce the majority required to pass a resolution].

Another example of US influence can be observed in the series of resolutions on the “defamation of religions.” From 1999 to 2010, these resolutions were passed every year at the Human Rights Council (and the Commission of Human Rights before 2006). They essentially allowed blasphemy laws and the suppression of people’s religious beliefs in the name of respecting religion. These resolutions were supported by the OIC and several other developing nations. In 2011 however, there was a radical shift. A joint US-OIC coalition passed resolution 16/18 which took the opposite stance on blasphemy laws as compared to the series of resolutions before. The US also lobbied hard and managed to pass a landmark resolution on LGBT rights in the HRC, despite the presence of several OIC and “not free” countries.

It is clear that the US has managed to cut across voting blocs and regional groups and introduce resolutions on important issues. The US has made the HRC stronger. Now, Trump would not care about this. However, what he does care about are Israel and China.

The US hasn’t successfully managed to significantly reduce the number of resolutions that the HRC passes on Israel. The number seems to have stabilised at five per year since 2015, including in 2018. However, as the graph below shows, the proportion of resolutions on Israel has reduced. Even the focus on Israel in HRC Special Sessions has significantly reduced after the US joined the HRC. It is clear, that US efforts to lead discussions and resolutions on other themes and country-specific situations have managed to shift the HRC’s focus. Moreover, US presence in the council also gives it the ability to speak up in Israel’s support.

USA Exits, China Enters

The HRC is composed of a large number of small, developing countries, particularly from Asia and Africa. A lot of these countries receive significant aid and investment from China. Angola, Cuba, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Venezuela, Ecuador and Pakistan, countries which receive some of the highest financial assistance from China are all members of the current HRC.

China has managed to portray itself as the representative of developing nations against the “hegemonic developed West.” While Trump has been trying to downplay the role of multilateral organisations such as the UN, China has been using all its muscle to consolidate its influence and standing in these organisations.

China has managed to shield itself from any scrutiny or even discussion on its human rights record in the HRC. It has also used to its influence to hinder the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). It gets a large number of its allies to turn up for the meeting and these countries either praise China or make toothless recommendations that would only bolster China’s ability to suppress civil society. For example, in the 2013 UPR Working Group Report on China, out of the 137 countries that made statements, 40 countries “commended” China for its human rights efforts. Several other countries “welcomed” its efforts. Only five countries were “concerned” with China’s human rights record. A lot of these countries that praise China, themselves have questionable human rights records and in return, China praises their human rights records in their UPR meeting. For example, in the 2013 UPR cycle, Saudi Arabia welcomed the progress that China had made in ethnic minority regions and in return, China commended Saudi Arabia’s efforts to promote tolerance among religious groups and the rights of children. Chinese manipulation of human rights institutions has been well documented in a Human Rights Watch report.

An HRC dominated by Chinese influence would definitely see the human rights agenda weaken. It is imperative to counter China’s influence in the council, and the USA is perhaps the only country which can do that. In 2010, it managed to pass a strong resolution on the freedom of association. This was a resolution the Chinese were against. Yet the US managed to isolate China and form a strong coalition to pass the resolution. In March 2016 it made a joint statement along with eleven other countries in the HRC, criticising China’s human rights record. This was a significant move because there has never been such a discussion or statement on China in the HRC. It is thus clear that the US plays a crucial role in opposing China and countering its influence.


The HRC undoubtedly deserves the criticism it has received. There is a pressing need to reform both its system of membership and its agenda item. However, Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley’s characterisation of the HRC as merely a political body, which has done nothing for human rights is misleading. The HRC has adopted over 1,350 resolutions on 120 themes and 30 countries. It has held 26 emergency special sessions and established 23 commissions and fact-finding missions to investigate and discuss human rights violations in several countries. A large number of action-oriented UPR recommendations have been implemented by countries. Fact-finding missions have gathered vast amounts of evidence on human rights violations in several countries. Consider, for example, the 400-page report on North Korea, which led to unprecedented attention by the UN Security Council and targeted sanctions by the US.  The US has played an important role in the HRCs. Only time will tell us the impact of Trump’s decision but it could potentially weaken the HRC and give China a lot more influence than it should have.

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Read the Previous Pieces in the Series Here and Here.

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