USA’s Exit From The UNHRC (1/2)

Vrishank Singhania


The exit of the United States from the UNHRC can be tracked to its Pro-Israel moves under the Trump Administration.


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

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On 19th June 2018, the Trump administration decided to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). The Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, issued a strongly worded statement, calling the HRC a “protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias.” They had two principal issues with the HRC – first, its membership, which consisted of human rights abusers, and second, its anti-Israel bias. Haley went on to say that the US had taken several initiatives to reform the HRC, but these failed because other countries lacked the resolve and courage to join their fight. Several “unfree countries” like “Russia, China, Cuba and Egypt” were against reforms. This is because a strong human rights body would go against the interests of those countries that have a poor human rights record. Furthermore, several like-minded countries who agreed with the concerns of the US were not ready to push for reforms, unless it was behind closed doors.

International reaction to USA’s decision was mostly consistent, with Israel being the only state to welcome the move. US allies UK and Australia, who shared the same concerns about the HRC as the US, were and stated that they would attempt to reform the HRC from within. China and the European Union criticised the move and found it regrettable. Several human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Freedom House also criticised the move and felt that it would undermine the USA’s ability to protect human rights. They felt that the HRC would be a far stronger institution with American involvement.

This article will analyse the concerns that the US has with the Human Rights Council, the pro-Israel nature of USA’s decision and finally argue that the US should not have left the HRC.

A Primer to the UNHRC Membership Structure

The HRC is a 47 member council with membership based on five regional groups. There are thirteen states each from Africa and Asia, six from Eastern Europe, eight from Latin America and the Caribbean, and seven from Western Europe and Others Group. Each member has a term of three years and no state can be a member for more than two consecutive terms. Resolution 60/251, which established the HRC requires that members “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” In the absence of any definition of what “highest standard” actually entails, several countries with an egregious human rights record have managed to get elected to the council. For example, countries like Venezuela, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and China among others are members of the HRC.

As shown in the graph below, based on the Freedom House classification, the HRC consists of 14 countries which are “Not Free.” These are countries which have very restricted or no political and civil rights and are usually ruled by authoritarian regimes. Almost one-third of the committee is full of such countries. As can also be observed, the bulk of these “Not Free” countries come from the Asia-Pacific and Africa regional groups.

Despite criticism by several states on the membership of human rights abusers, there has been no progress in the HRC. In fact, it only seems to be getting worse. As the graph below shows, the current HRC has the highest number of unfree countries since its inception in 2006.

The cause for this is the system of elections to the HRC. Countries from each regional group nominate themselves and compete for a fixed number of positions every year. It was hoped that competitive elections would help ensure that countries with positive human rights records would get elected on to the committee. However, countries have a found a way to circumvent competitive elections. Most of the regional blocs have only those many countries nominated as the number of vacancies available. This is known as a “clean slate.” As can be seen in the graph below, there are usually at least three regional groups which put forward clean slates. In 2009 and 2010, all the regional groups put forward clean slates. In 2017, only the Asia-Pacific Group did not have a clean slate, but it wasn’t a very competitive election per se because only five countries were running for four seats. In fact, apart from 2006, whenever there has not been a clean slate, it has always been only one or two additional countries competing for the available seats. It seems likely that even in the 2018 elections, which are scheduled to happen in October, all regional groups would have clean slates. Four regional groups have already put forward clean slates. The African Group has not yet announced its candidates, but it in all elections except one it has put forward a clean slate and it is likely that the same would continue this year as well. The lack of a mechanism to ensure competitive elections or that oppressive countries do not get elected was one of the major criticisms of the HRC’s predecessor as well and also one of the reasons the USA voted against the establishment of the HRC in 2006.

There is no additional obligation upon members of the HRC to ensure that they comply either with HRC decisions or with human rights law. In fact, several HRC members such as China, Burundi, Ethiopia and Philippines have refused to cooperate with Special Rapporteurs or commissions of inquiry that the HRC had established. Furthermore, as a part of the HRC, countries influence the sort of resolutions that are passed, the discussions that take place and even the Universal Periodic Review process. The lack of a disincentive in the form of additional obligations and incentives in the form of influence in the HRC, encourage countries with poor human rights record to vie for a seat.

Is there an Israel-Bias in the UNHRC?

Another criticism levied against the HRC, which was also in fact levied against its predecessor, is its apparent bias against the state of Israel. It is true that there have been numerous human rights violations in the Palestinian region for decades and it would be necessary for any human rights body to examine the situation. However, that does not justify the disproportionate focus and condemnation that Israel has received. Since its inception, the HRC has passed 163 resolutions condemning states for their human rights record. Out of this, 78, or almost half of all condemnations have been against Israel alone.[1] Around one-third of all special sessions of the HRC have also been on Israel.

Interestingly, condemnations against Israel do not come under Agenda Item 4 which deals with country-specific situations. Instead, the issue of Palestine is a permanent part of the agenda under Item 7, much similar to Agenda Item 8 of the HRC’s predecessor. The Agenda Item for any UN body determines the topics that the body would deliberate upon. A separate agenda item specifically for the Palestinian region ensures that a targeted discussion on Israel is always on the table. No other country or region has been singled out in the agenda item like this.

Furthermore, the resolutions against Israel are always very harsh and one-sided. They do not scrutinise human rights violations by other actors in the region and only single out Israel. Even the ‘Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967’ is mandated to only investigate violations by Israel. Consider, for example, HRC Resolution S-28/1, which was passed by a special session on 22 May 2018. The resolution only condemned Israeli forces, but did not even mention the barrage of mortar attacks launched by Hamas from Gaza.

This problem becomes even starker when compared to the HRC’s record on condemning other countries. There have been no condemnations of countries like Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Cuba, Afghanistan, Congo and China among others. The reason behind this is that the Council is dominated by developing nations from Africa and Asia, particularly groups such as the OIC, Arab League and NAM. Many of these countries have poor human rights records and by not voting in favour of resolutions that condemn members of their bloc, they ensure the same protection for themselves as well.

Israel-Bias: Foreign-Policy Significance

Several authors have argued that Trump’s decision to withdraw from the HRC was because of the flak that his administration had started to draw for its child separation policy. It is possible that this may have influenced the timing of the decision. By delegitimising the HRC he may have been trying to discredit any statements from the Council members regarding his policy. However, it would be fallacious to suggest that this was the principal cause for his decision. Trump has been threatening to withdraw from the HRC since 2017.

Trump’s decision should not be looked at as an isolated incident, but rather as part of a series of decisions that he has taken to move closer to Israel. It started back when he was President-elect and criticized the Obama administration for not exercising its veto in the UN Security Council on a resolution against Israeli settlements (Resolution 2334). Ever since, Trump’s affair with Netanyahu has only intensified. He withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal and also moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Apart from these, he has also taken several other pro-Israel decisions.

In March 2017, a UN Report called Israel an apartheid state. The report was subsequently withdrawn after intense pressure from the US government and even led to the head of the ESCWA submitting her resignation. The US also blocked the appointment of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad who set to be appointed as the special representative for Libya. In fact, US Ambassador Nikki Haley went on to say the US would oppose the appointment of any Palestinian official at the UN.

Israel has often criticised UNESCO which it claims also has an Israel bias. It admitted Palestine as a member state. In 2016, it declared Temple Mount, one of Jerusalem’s holiest sites only as Muslim site of heritage. It has also passed 46 resolutions against Israel between 2009 and 2014. Trump shared Israel’s concerns and in October 2017 both Israel and USA announced their decision to withdraw from UNESCO.

Another UN body that Israel has often criticised is the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). It claims that the UNRWA is responsible for the perpetuation of the refugee problem because it allows the refugee status to be passed down for generations. It propagates the narrative of the ‘right to return,’ rather than helping the refugees settle down in neighbouring countries. Israel has also alleged that the agency shields and protects terrorists. USA was the largest contributor of funds to the UNRWA and Netanyahu has long asked the US to cut funding for the agency. Trump, who seemed in no mood to stop showering gifts upon the Israelis, unsurprisingly agreed to do so. In January 2018, he cut by more than half the aid the US provides to the UNRWA.

Netanyahu, when asked about his relationship with President Trump said “It’s fair to say I don’t have any disagreements,” and this summarizes Trump’s approach to Israel. He’s given them a carte blanche to do what they want, as they want, and the guarantee that he’ll support them both domestically and internationally. It is beyond the scope of this article to analyse the reasons for Trump’s unprecedented, radical Israel policy. However, it is possible that he may be doing this to appeal to his pro-Likud, pro-Israel voter base and may also have to do with the fact that 87% of Republican donors are Israeli sympathizers. The message Trump has sent across is clear – America First includes America’s “special ally” Israel as well.

[1] Data on condemnations till June 2016 has been obtained from Hillel Neuer’s testimony to a US Senate subcommittee. Subsequent data has been gathered by going through UNHRC resolutions. All country-specific resolutions have not been included. Only those resolutions which condemned a state have been considered.


Image Source: AlJazeera

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