Consequences of the U.S. Departure from the Human Rights Council

Permanent Representative of the United States to the UN
Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Civil society and other stakeholders warned of consequences to human rights defenders and victims of rights abuses when the United States formally announced last month its decision to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council. [HRW: Blame; HRW: Oppose; OHCHR Press Release: Dialogue] The decision – effective June 19, 2018, over a year before the end of the State’s term, which would have expired on December 31, 2019 – marks the first time a State has voluntarily left the Human Rights Council before serving its full term. It is the second time, though, a State has failed to complete its full term on the Human Rights Council; Libya was removed from the Council in 2011. [UN General Assembly Press Release] See U.S. Department of State, Remarks on the UN Human Rights Council.

The primary reasons listed by the United States for its departure include the Council’s alleged anti-Israel bias; the membership on the Council of States that commit human rights abuses, including Cuba, Venezuela, China, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and a failure of the Human Rights Council to reform itself, including in the election process. See U.S. Department of State, Remarks on the UN Human Rights Council. Additionally, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, asserted that key human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were also responsible for the U.S.’s departure. [HRW: Blame; HRW: Oppose] Civil society organizations have rejected the Ambassador’s claims, and have spoken out against the move, expressing concern that countries like China and Russia will take advantage of the absence of the U.S. to weaken human rights protections and programs, among other consequences. [HRW: Blame; HRW: Oppose] The United States has made other withdrawals from international commitments since the start of 2017, including its departures from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Iran nuclear deal, and Paris Agreement. [IJRC: Paris Agreement; NYT: Iran Nuclear Deal; Washington Post: TPP]

Consequences of Withdrawal

The international community has noted that there may be three primary consequences to the United States withdrawing from the Human Rights Council, each possibly weakening the Council’s ability to protect and promote human rights. First, the Council may suffer a loss of credibility and the robustness of its human rights discussions and programs; second, other Member States on the Council will be able to push forward their agendas, which will likely include dismantling certain human rights programs and blocking human rights defenders from participating in international forums; and third, the Council will suffer a reduction in funding. [OHCHR Press Release: Remarks; Foreign Policy: Russia; Foreign Policy: U.S.]

Loss of Credibility, and Human Rights Investigations and Discussions

The departure of the United States prior to the end of its term on the Council undermines the Council’s stability and the importance of its work; detracts from the opposition to, and investigation of, human rights abuses committed by certain States; and may prevent some States from receiving UN assistance in implementing human rights protections. [The Hill; Foreign Policy: U.S.] Commentators have pointed out that the Human Rights Council has proven valuable in addressing rights violations in countries such as Syria and Myanmar and rights violations against certain populations, such as people with disabilities and migrants. However, the departure of the U.S. will not only diminish its own leverage in addressing these issues and the human rights violations occurring within Council Member States, but also require other States in the Council to work harder to ensure that those conversations and inquiries continue. [Al Jazeera; NPR] Some of the most pressing conversations and inquiries before the Council include those addressed at the most recent Human Rights Council session in June and July. During that session, the State representatives heard reports and presentations on human rights assistance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Ukraine, on the human rights situations in Myanmar and Syria, and the human rights topics of migrants and violence against women, among many other reports and updates.

In response to the departure of the U.S., the President of the UN Human Rights Council, Ambassador Vojislav Šuc of Slovenia, called on States to support and protect the space the Council provides for discussions on human rights, which, according to Šuc, are unlikely to be held elsewhere if not in the Human Rights Council. Šuc pointed out that the Council is the only intergovernmental body that addresses human rights issues around the world. Accordingly, Šuc said, “[I]f human rights issues are not discussed here, in this very room, they have little chance to be dealt with meaningfully anywhere else.” [OHCHR Press Release: Remarks]

Cuts to Human Rights Programs

The U.S. withdrawal from the Human Rights Council may have a significant impact on UN human rights programs around the world. Human rights advocates and civil society are concerned that U.S. withdrawal from intergovernmental institutions, including the Human Rights Council, will allow China and Russia to assert more power within the Council and to seek budgetary cuts targeting certain human rights programs, especially regarding peacekeeping missions. [Foreign Policy: Russia] Russia has proposed a 50 percent cut in funding for UN peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cyprus, Haiti, Sudan, and South Sudan. Further, China has proposed eliminating over 35 positions related to human rights work, including human rights officers and investigators. [Foreign Policy: Russia]

Interference with Civil Society Engagement

U.S. withdrawal may also allow other countries, including China, to further obstruct civil society’s advocacy around Human Rights Council sessions and activities. China has persistently prevented civil society engagement in the Human Rights Council and other UN forums, such as by blocking a moment of silence at the Council for a deceased human rights defender, and the U.S. has been one force that opposes China’s prevention of civil society direct engagement at the UN. See Human Rights Watch, The Costs of International Advocacy: China’s Interference in United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms (2017). [Foreign Policy: Russia; Foreign Policy: Jailed] For instance, when China successfully blocked human rights defender Dolkun Isa from remaining on UN premises, Isa was only allowed into the UN in New York after U.S. and German officials spoke with the UN Secretary General on Isa’s behalf. [Foreign Policy: Jailed]

Loss of Funding

Additionally, with its departure, the United States will no longer fund the Human Rights Council, which may hurt certain programs and activities such as investigations of human rights abuses. [The Hill; UN Watch] Through the end of this year, the United States is obligated to fund 22 percent of the UN’s overall budget, in line with its share of global gross domestic product. See UN General Assembly, Resolution 70/245, Scale of assessments for the apportionment of the expenses of the United Nations, UN Doc. A/RES/70/245, 23 December 2015, para. 13.

Responses from the International Community

The UN Secretary General and several State representatives expressed disappointment that the United States chose to leave the Human Rights Council. The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, stated that he would have preferred the U.S. remained in the Human Rights Council. [United Nations Secretary General Press Release] Ambassador Šuc asked the United States to reconsider its decisions to withdraw. [OHCHR Press Release: Dialogue] Bulgaria, on behalf of the European Union, noted that the EU regrets the decision of the U.S. to leave the Council, and believes that the U.S.’s action undermines the U.S. as an advocate for democracy. [OHCHR Press Release: Dialogue]

Among civil society members, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in particular have been outspoken opponents of the U.S. decision to leave the Human Rights Council. Amnesty International stated that leaving the Human Rights Council demonstrates U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration’s disregard for fundamental rights and freedoms, and that while the Human Rights Council is not perfect, it is an important force for accountability. [Amnesty International: Leaves] Human Rights Watch similarly stated that the decision to leave the Human Rights Council will ultimately hurt the victims of human rights violations. [HRW: Defense]

In response to civil society’s outspoken criticism, Ambassador Haley sent letters to a group of human rights NGOs and non-profits, stating that it was their request that Member States oppose the U.S.’s proposed reforms for the Human Rights Council that contributed to the U.S. to withdraw. [Amnesty International: Letters; HRW: Blame] Civil society organizations had requested Member States to oppose the reforms because they would have allowed space for other States to establish reforms that undermined the effective functioning of the Council. [HRW: Blame] Amnesty International responded to Haley by saying that it believes the best way for the U.S. to address the Council’s deficiencies is to remain a member of the Council and “provide strong and principled leadership.” [Amnesty International: Letters] While a reform process is underway at the Human Rights Council, the U.S., Human Rights Watch noted in its response, has instead chosen to disengage from those efforts. [HRW: Blame]

The Human Rights Council

The UN Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body of the United Nations, through which States discuss human rights conditions in all UN Member States, with input from civil society. The Council has a mandate to promote human rights as well as address violations of human rights, including through issuing recommendations. Created in 2006, the Human Rights Council is composed of 47 Member States elected from the UN General Assembly in staggered three-year terms, with a specified number of seats being allocated to each major geographic region. The Human Rights Council may issue resolutions to call on States to take specific actions, create mechanisms to investigate situations, and may create or renew the mandates of special procedures, among other activities. See IJRC, UN Human Rights Council. The United Nations General Assembly will vote to fill the empty seat on the Human Rights Council. [OHCHR Press Release: Dialogue]

When the Human Rights Council was first created in 2006, the U.S. opted not to put forth a bid for membership, and it was not until 2009 that the U.S. joined the Council. [Time]

Additional Information

For more information about the UN Human Rights Council, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.

To stay up-to-date on international human rights law news, visit IJRC’s News Room or subscribe to the IJRC Daily.

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