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Was it a good move for the US to quit the UN Human Rights Council?


Was it a good move for the US to quit the UN Human Rights Council?

Recently, the United States announced that it would exit the UN Human Rights Council calling it a “cesspool of political bias”.

In doing so, the US cited several reasons. The first was the hypocrisy of accepting major human rights violators such as the Democratic Republic of Congo into the HRC membership. The second is the unwillingness to push for major reforms into the functioning of the organizations which the US and UK have encouraged. And the selective bias of which concerns the committee would address having violations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as permanent agenda items while neglecting other vital issues such as the depleting situation in Venezuela.

The UNHRC is a relatively young body having been formed in 2006 by the UN general assembly. It consists of 47 member nations who are regionally represented for a staggered three-year term limit. The US is currently (because they still haven’t provided official notification of it’s departure) in the middle of its three-year term (2016-19) with the HRC. With a few months to go till the end of its term, the US withdrawal was intended to send a signal to the world.  President Trump’s disdain for the international system is well-known and evidenced by his withdrawal from significant international initiatives such as the Paris Climate Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran Nuclear deal. He has in the past criticized both NATO and the UN, suggesting that the US should withdraw because of disproportionate US contribution to these organizations. The withdrawal from the HRC is intended to demonstrate that the US means business when it comes to international organizations. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the perception of ill-treatment of Israel which has received more sanctions from the HRC than every other violating country combined.

It is widely-accepted that the UN is not a perfect organization by any means. The UNHRC specifically is marred by inefficiency and bias, among its many flaws. For example, among its current members are known human rights violators such as China, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. However, the withdrawal creates yet another vacuum in the international system which China will happily seek to fill.  Most likely, the position on the HRC vacated by the US will be filled by a country from Western Europe. However, the fear is of China’s aggression in reshaping the way the world thinks about human rights. After all, China’s stated purpose for its 2016 bid for reelection to the council was to “smash the West’s monopoly on human rights”. Yet another a small step in China’s efforts to reshape the international system.

President Trump’s retreat from global affairs ironically comes at the same time as China marches onwards towards establishing itself within the international system. Following China’s removal of presidential term limits, the inclusion of President Xi’s ideology in the constitution of the party, and announcing the third era which includes international expansion, China is well on its way to reshaping the global order. This continued US withdrawal makes it easier. While some decry this withdrawal as a departure of a strong ‘defender of human rights’ from the HRC, it is more troubling that this is yet another demonstration of US withdrawal from the international system which will hasten China’s rise and its ability to reshape the global system in its own image. Both of which will have serious implications for global affairs.

Image Credit: CC by UNHRC/ United Nations

M. Sudhir Selvaraj

M. Sudhir Selvaraj writes the Weekly Security Brief for GCN. He is a fellow with the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. His interests lie in security of religious minorities, secularism, U.S. foreign policy and politics of South Asia. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies at King’s College London. He has a master’s (with distinction) in International Relations from the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and graduated cum laude (with honors) from Concordia College, Minnesota with majors in Political Science and Global Studies and a minor in Business.

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