Global Tracker

United States’ Withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council Continues to Draw Attention

The United States formally withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council at a time when it is facing much criticism over its own human rights record. Katie Dobosz-Kenney explains the motivations and criticism of the United States over its most recent move.


On Tuesday, June 19 the United States announced their departure from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), as the result of the council’s failure to implement changes to what the US considers a strong and long-standing bias against the nation of Israel. Unwavering support for Israel is a hallmark of the Trump foreign policy agenda, which was further solidified when the US Embassy was controversially opened in Jerusalem on May 14 earlier this year. The departure from the UNHRC, initiated as the council begins their three-week conference at UN Headquarters in Geneva, is disappointing, but not unexpected; nor is the US position a singularly held belief. The UNHRC has been criticized for focusing on the human rights record of Israel over that of other nations. United States Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, also criticized the council’s unwillingness to implement policy to remove member states in clear violation of human rights, and called the council hypocritical and self-serving. Ambassador Haley cited Venezuela and China as examples, while also failing to mention the current lobby against Saudi Arabia to be removed from the council.

Though the decision to withdraw from the UNHRC is not unexpected, it is unprecedented. Even though George W. Bush boycotted the council during his presidency, no other member nation has withdrawn in the council’s 12-year tenure. However, the US has a history of shying away from international bodies and conventions, having never signed the Convention Against Torture, failing to ratify the Convention of the Rights of the Child, CEDAW, and the Law of the Sea. The US also withdrew their signature from the Rome Statute, the founding document of the International Criminal Court. In October 2017, Burundi was the first nation to formally quit the ICC after an ongoing investigation of crimes against humanity in Burundi was launched that same month. Burundi is one of many African nations who cite politically motivated bias of western nations against African as grounds to leave the ICC.

International bodies like the UNHRC and the ICC are flawed. But the consequences of a US exit from the council are far greater than the benefits of remaining. According to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations, US participation on the council resulted in a 20% decrease in the focus on Israel.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, rightly stated that no nation should get a free pass with regard to violations of human rights, nor be the sole focal point. But at a time when the United States’ own human rights record has been called into question through the forcible removal of children as young as toddlers from parents as a deterrent for illegal immigration, the Trump administration is regressing the global initiative to advance human rights by taking what could be considered a hypocritical action. By taking hard lines on criticism of Israel over their treatment of Palestinians while simultaneously being “unsurprised” of North Korea dictator Kim Jong-un’s love for his people, the US appears to be selectively overlooking the human rights records of nations that serve the Trump foreign policy agenda. This kind of cherry-picking is counterproductive to the global effort to end impunity for human rights violations. When the gross violations of human rights can be identified in over 90 countries, “the US should be stepping up, not stepping back.”

Katie Dobosz Kenney holds an MS in Global Affairs from New York University with a concentration in Peacebuilding. An educator for almost 10 years, Katie had developed global and peace education curricula in Florida, Mississippi, and Timor-Leste. Katie currently works as a graduate program administrator at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and has co-led study abroad programs to South Africa and the UAE.

Photo Credit: EC/ECHO/Cyprien Fabre

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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