The United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) was created in 2006 by the UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251. The purpose of the HRC is to develop friendly relations among nations and to build respect for the principles of equal rights and self-determination. Furthermore, the HRC upholds the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and other international human rights instruments. Forty-seven countries are elected to the HRC for three-year terms. Each country is elected by a secret ballot with a majority of members in the General Assembly to ensure impartiality and equal representation of the UN Member States.
Moreover, the HRC examines the human rights record of every country that is a member to the UN. In 2017, the states receiving the most recommendations to remedy their human rights violations were China, Iran, Egypt, North Korea, and Vietnam. In addition to examining every country, the HRC sends independent investigators to address specific situations. The two most recent inquiries were in Syria and South Sudan in 2017.
On June 19, 2018, the United States became the first country to withdraw from the HRC since its formation. The withdrawal is unprecedented, and its repercussions will detrimentally affect the protection of human rights around the world. The main reason for the withdrawal cited by the U.S. Ambassador to the UN was that the HRC is biased against Israel. The HRC focuses its investigations globally, not solely on Israel. However, it investigates Israel because it is obliged to under its mandate, not because of an anti-Israel bias like the U.S. claims.
The U.S. also claims the council is biased and hypocritical since some of the countries that have been elected have also committed human rights violations. The HRC has passed many resolutions that condemn Israel’s conduct in Palestine as human rights violations. Although the Israel-Palestine conflict receives a lot of scrutiny, the HRC has also passed resolutions condemning North Korea, Myanmar, Sudan, and many others. The council focuses on all UN member countries, ensuring that they uphold human rights. As an elected member of the council, the U.S. has a high standard to meet to protect human rights. While there may be flaws in the organization, shrinking backwards into a policy of isolationism is not a productive response that will create solutions.
Moreover, the U.S. is not upholding the commitments it made when it submitted its bid to be elected. Members of the HRC are required, under paragraph nine of GA resolution 60/251, to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights. Additionally, in paragraph nine the U.S. is obliged to fully cooperate with the council during its membership. In withdrawing its influence and support, the U.S. is neither protecting nor promoting human rights. It is not cooperating with the council, even though its function is to serve as a forum for states to address issues related to human rights.
The U.S. is not the only country that does not meet the criteria delineated in paragraph nine. According to Freedom House’s annual ratings, at least twenty-three percent of states on the HRC are rated as “not free.” But the U.S. is the only country that has stepped away from the body entirely, and its absence will only allow powerful countries with poor human rights records more influence. It is a gift of power to authoritative regimes that will use their influence to further undermine human rights and to refuse to fix any systemic flaws in the HRC.
The United States’ withdrawal from the HRC is not a death knell for human rights. The major human rights treaties like the UDHR and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) are binding customary international law. The U.S. is required by those treaties to uphold and respect human rights with its own citizens and extraterritorially. By quitting its commitments to the HRC, the U.S. not taking all measures to uphold and protect human rights.
If the U.S. truly wanted to address the problems within the HRC, it would commit to diplomacy and cooperation. The U.S. should encourage more countries to improve their human rights protections and to run for election, so that the HRC is not overcrowded with large, powerful countries. Furthermore, it should use the HRC as a forum to cooperate with other world leaders to create sustainable solutions to human rights issues, while also focusing internally to ensure it meets the criteria for membership as well. By setting a precedence of cooperation and self-accountability, a renewed model for human rights protection could be possible. Isolationism cannot be the answer; it is the time for faith in international cooperation.