U.S. Withdrawal From The Human Rights Council Is A Retreat From U.S. Leadership On Human Rights

My work takes me often to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. When I was last at the Human Rights Council in March, there was one moment when I was especially proud to be American. I was proud to be American when the U.S. took the floor to speak up on behalf of freedom of expression and association in Cambodia, where the government is cracking down on political opposition in advance of July elections.

Just last week, we participated in a Department of State briefing on the U.S. priorities for the July Council session. The U.S. was planning to speak out strongly on civil & political rights again. Protection of women’s rights is also a focus of this session, something the U.S. has taken a lead role on in recent years.  The U.S. was planning to make specific resolutions again on countries that the Council discusses regularly, including Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, and Belarus. We were working closely with several European countries on thematic priorities such as civil society space and business and human rights.

Only 47 Member States, elected by the General Assembly, can vote BUT every Member State has a voice at the Human Rights Council. It is a diplomatic and democratic institution, albeit on a global scale – and with only diplomatic (soft) power. Although better than its predecessor (where I also worked), there is no question that the Human Rights Council has flaws. But, to quote Winston Churchill, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise”.

The Human Rights Council was created to be the main international political forum to discuss and make recommendations related to human rights situations. Before the Council came into being in 2006, civil society groups and some governments lobbied hard to restrict membership on the Council to States with strong human rights records.  Those efforts failed so currently the Human Rights Council membership criteria is minimal.  The 47 Members States are elected directly and individually by secret ballot by the majority of the members of the General Assembly.  The membership is based on equitable geographical distribution, and seats distributed as follows among regional groups:  Group of African States (13); Group of Asia-Pacific States (13); Group of Eastern European States (6); Group of Latin American and Caribbean States (8); and Group of Western European and other States (7).   Short of changing the criteria (which could be done democratically if there was enough political will), there is room for diplomatic pressure at both the regional and international levels to ensure that the States with better human rights records are put forward for election in their regional groups.

The real value of the Human Rights Council is engagement.  Every country’s human rights record is reviewed by their peers during their regular Universal Periodic Review.  Every country receives both criticism and commendation.  In my time at the Council, I  have honestly been surprised by how often this public, international peer pressure is effective in getting countries to take action to improve human rights conditions.

To say that the United States is losing our values as a global leader in democracy and human rights is an understatement. What has made us a great country is the fundamental belief that everyone is equal. That is the most basic human rights principle on the planet. Regardless of race, religion, nationality, or any other categorizing factor – every single person is equal in rights and responsibilities.
Withdrawing from the Human Rights Council is ultimately only a symbolic move. The U.S.’s second term will expire soon and we would have to go off the Council before running for a geographic seat again. By withdrawing, the U.S. reverts to observer status, like the nearly 150 other UN Member States (and a handful of observers like the Holy See) who are not members of the Human Rights Council. What the Trump administration did today was abdicate the right to vote on Council resolutions. The U.S. will still be able to participate in Council debates – and I sincerely hope that, as a matter of foreign policy, we do. Alternatively, the U.S. could choose not to participate in the Council’s interactive dialogues at all, leaving our seat in the Council’s chamber empty and a silencing an historically strong voice for human rights.*
As a country, however, today we took another step back from 70 years of leadership in human rights.
*June 20 Update – The U.S. will no longer participate in debates and discussions of the July Human Rights Council session or future sessions.

One thought on “U.S. Withdrawal From The Human Rights Council Is A Retreat From U.S. Leadership On Human Rights

  1. Thank you for that great summary of how the Human Rights Council works. I haven’t read your Blog in a while (MY LOSS) – it’s always thought provoking, original, and informative

    I’m an American citizen, though I have lived abroad for most of my life so my perspective is external . I think the US withdrawal from the Council is more than symbolic. While the US may purport to be a leader in Human Rights, it can hardly be said that they are walking the walk given the travesties taking place on it’s borders. I realise it’s all relative – and some may think it’s ridiculous to compare removing children from parents and putting them in wire cages to selling children into slavery – though both sound equally miserable and amoral to me, especially if you’re a young child. It is ironic that a country which is held up as a leader in human rights can have such distain for the rights of children.

    I wonder if the real reason for the US withdrawal from the Council may have more to do with the Council’s stance on issues that are adverse to those of the US government’s interests and alliances.


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