Spearhead Analysis – 02.07.2018
By Shirin Naseer
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
Drawing criticism from world leaders and human rights groups alike, the United States has withdrawn from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The UNHRC has had a long history of leading investigations and enquiries into the status of human rights in North Korea, Syria, South Sudan, and Myanmar. Ever since the US rejoined the Council in 2010, the US has been involved in leading efforts t0 examine crimes against humanity in regions including but not limited to Syria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia.
As part of the UNHRC efforts, all 193 states part of the United Nations are also required to pass through a universal periodic review of their state-specific human rights record. Owing to the significance and stature of the Council and its purpose, US’s departure from the UNHRC was jarring for several states, including even some Israeli diplomats.
Following the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley’s statement it was exceedingly clear that US withdrawal may have been motivated by Washington’s longstanding concern regarding a believed bias against Israel in the Council. The Council’s recent vote to probe the killing of Palestinian protesters in the Gaza Strip and accusation against Israel of using excessive force in the matter irked the US.
Previously, the US has voiced its position against “agenda item 7 on rights violations by all parties in the Occupied Palestinian Territories”. This item became part of the Council’s agenda in 2007, a time when the US was not a member of the Council. The US since becoming a member has been working for the removal of agenda item 7. In fact, it has taken a stand against any resolutions dealing with the Occupied Palestinian Territories. US role during a recent Special Session resolution aimed at launching an inquiry into violence in Gaza is a case in point. Negotiations on the potential of reform in the Council are still progressing. The United Kingdom also stands with the US against item 7. However, unlike the US, the UK will continue to be a part of the council and use voting on resolutions as a means to oppose item 7.
“We take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights,” Haley said alongside US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington, DC.
To date no country has left the UNHRC after taking part in the elections to secure a seat at the Council. With this decision now the US has also removed itself from discussions and action related to important issues that affect not only its allies but also governments worldwide.
According to Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, “The US has been threatening to walk away from the Human Rights Council ever since President Trump came into office, so this decision comes as no surprise. Trump has decided that ‘America First’ means ignoring the suffering of civilians in Syria and ethnic minorities in Myanmar at the United Nations.”
As for the UNHRC itself, the body is facing numerous questions on its future.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect to examine with the US no longer in the picture is China’s new role in the body. A Chinese senior diplomat in Geneva earlier this year blatantly said that China’s efforts at the council were intended to “smash the West’s monopoly on human rights”. There is considerable debate on China and countries like China now getting even more room to push forth their ideas and perhaps even undermine existing UN human rights mechanisms. In the past, as early as 2016 when China was running for re-election to the UNHRC, the Chinese state media said China’s objective was to “actively declare China’s own human rights policy”.
For the first time in the history of the UNHRC, in June 2017 China sponsored “resolution 35/21”. Ma Zhaoxu noted, the resolution (named “Contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights”), “truly reflects General Secretary Xi Jinping’s policy of Constructing a community of human destiny and at the same time, it contributes to the reform of the global governance system.” In March this year China forwarded another resolution, this time concentrating on state sovereignty. It was widely opposed. A UN expert referred to it as a “trojan horse” and the Swiss ambassador to the UN said it “weakens fundamental human rights principles.” The US along with 12 other countries voted against the 2017 resolution. With the March resolution however the US was the only country that stood in opposition. Now that the US is no longer part of the UNHRC China has little to worry about.
The US stepping back from its leadership role in the Council means China will step up to the challenge and perhaps work to fill the vacuum, advancing now its own model and version of human rights with even more force on the world at large.