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UNA-UK statement on US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council

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UNA-UK statement on US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council

A statement from the United Nations Association UK on the United States' withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council:

The United States’ decision to withdraw from the Human Rights Council is disappointing but, as the High Commissioner for Human Rights said, not surprising. The United States has been a positive influence on the Council, and has been effective in reducing bias with regards to Israel via its participation. These gains now may be reversed.

This is yet another blow to international efforts to protect rights at a time when they are under attack across the world, including in the United States. The timing, just a day after the High Commissioner took the nation to task for splitting families apart also suggests an absence of maturity in responding to legitimate criticism.

The Human Rights Council is far from perfect. UNA-UK has long campaigned against its undue focus on Israel, and we have consistently maintained that its credibility is sapped when UN member states elect egregious human rights violators to serve on the Council. This is often a consequence of uncontested elections, due in part to a faliure of  states that champion human rights to run for election, to persuade their allies to do so, and to insist that there be no 'clean slates'.

Nevertheless, the Council has shone a light on all states’ human rights records through processes such as the Universal Periodic Review. It has also become an increasingly important part of the UN's response to cases such as Syria, where the Security Council has failed to act. The Council's investigative work has revealed abuses in Yemen, Burundi, Myanmar and South Sudan, for example, and it has developed global understanding on issues such as LGBT rights and the rights of migrants.

The United States has indicated that it wishes to move discussion on human rights into other UN forums and processes, particularly the Security Council. Strengthening the linkages between the UN's human rights work and the rest of the UN system, an objective of the Secretary-General's Human Rights Up Front initiative, is much needed and it would be welcome to see the United States take a lead on this. In order to demonstrate that this is not disingenuous rhetoric, the United States should now make meaningful investments in this wider system, for instance, by increasing voluntary funding to the Peace and Development Advisors and human rights components of UN peacekeeping missions that form the vital links between the UN's human rights, peace and security and development work. Given Ambassador Haley's strong criticism of the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo in her speech withdrawing from the Council, increasing funding to the human rights elements of the UN peacekeeping mission to that country would appear to be a logical first step. 

However, it must be noted that such an approach will not solve all the issues the United States' has raised. Obstructionism on human rights is not unique to the Human Rights Council. Indeed, it is more acute at the Security Council, which was recently prevented by Russia from even hearing from the UN's top human rights official, and the US has not always been on the rights side of this equation. Further, a joined up approach to human rights at the UN needs to involve the Human Rights Council. The absence of the United States - a permanent member and the UN’s largest funder - will reduce the potential for linking up action in Geneva and New York.

UNA-UK was particularly concerned that in discussions on Human Rights Council reform, members of the EU were willing to consider compromises in the hope of preventing the US' withdrawal that included removing the Council's ability to place country-specific violations on its agenda. While this proposal was ultimately thwarted by the commendable leadership of Belgium, the fact that EU members were willing to countenance such a serious hobbling of the primary purpose of the Council is very troubling, and serves to highlight the risks of reopening discussions around the mandates and structures of the UN system at this current moment.

In light of this, UNA-UK hopes that the UK, working with partners around the world (including, crucially, from the global south), will help to fill the gap the United States leaves behind: by increasing efforts to improve the Council's vital work to scrutinise all countries and condemn abuses wherever they happen; and to improve links between the two Councils in Geneva and New York. Our report on the UK and the Human Rights Council sets out ideas on how this could be achieved. We also hope that the UK will move away from echoing Trumpian language about "putting the Council on notice". Words matter greatly at this difficult time. We were heartened by the Foreign Secretary's principled statement of support for the Human Rights Council, released in response to the US withdrawal, and look to the UK to continue to play a constructive role in Geneva.

Photo: the Foreign Secretary addresses the Human Rights Council on Monday. Credit