Trump shuns the Human Rights Council: a step forward or backward?

In the midst of a furore over the Trump administration’s policy of separating the children of detained migrants from their parents, the United States has announced that it is pulling out of the UN Human Rights Council.

While these two developments are not directly connected many people will see an emerging pattern. Events in the US, plus Trump’s recent bromance with the North Korean dictator and his obvious admiration for other “strong” leaders all point to the conclusion that he doesn’t really care about human rights.

In deciding to leave the UN body, though, the US claims to be supporting human rights, not undermining them. It argues that the Human Rights Council doesn’t do its job properly and, in the words of US envoy Nikki Haley, has become “a protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias”.

The council certainly has many flaws, including political bias, but the US is scarcely approaching the problem from a position of political neutrality. It appears more concerned about the council’s criticisms of Israel than its ineffectiveness in dealing with other rights abusers.

The UN’s involvement with human rights dates back to 1946 with the formation of a Commission on Human Rights. The commission began with high hopes but difficulties soon became apparent. The basic problem was that it placed the task of policing rights abuses in the hands of governments that to varying degrees were also perpetrators. It became a club of poachers posing as gamekeepers.

By 2006 the commission had become thoroughly discredited and was replaced by the Human Rights Council. In some ways this was an improvement but the underlying problem remained. Victors in the
first election to the 47-member body included Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Pakistan and Russia.

At the council’s first session, Saudi Arabia congratulated itself on “considerable progress in its endeavours to promote and protect human rights”. Meanwhile, back in the kingdom, a man’s head was being chopped off. Iran, though not an elected member, was also allowed to send a representative: Saeed Mortazavi, the notorious public prosecutor of Tehran, who — in the words of Human Rights Watch — had been “implicated in torture, illegal detention, and coercing false confessions by numerous former prisoners”.

Countries with bad records that get elected to the council and related bodies often claim their election is a tribute to their human rights achievements — when plainly it is not. The elections are plagued with political game-playing where the countries that most deserving of criticism protect themselves by ganging up to elect other countries in a similar position. Western countries have also been accused of trading votes with abusers. Documents leaked in 2015 revealed secret discussions between Britain and Saudi Arabia with a view to both countries supporting each other in elections to the council.

The creation of the Human Rights Council as a replacement for the previous commission also introduced a system known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) which aimed to address the problem of bias. Under UPR the human rights performance of all UN member states comes up for scrutiny once every five years, in strict rotation.

Up to a point these reviews serve a useful purpose. They identify the rights issues in each country, make recommendations for improvements and monitor the country’s progress (or lack of). The reviews also include input from relevant NGOs as well as governments.

However, the reviews have often been heavily politicised, especially where the worst rights offenders are concerned — sometimes with surreal effects. In October 2011, for example, Syria came up for review in the midst of the uprising against the Assad regime and in its 26-page submission to the council the regime boasted that “liberty is a sacred right that is safeguarded by the constitution” and that human rights were included in the syllabus for university law students. In response to that, North Korea “commended Syria on its efforts to maintain security and stability” while Iran noted Syria’s “achievements in economic, social and cultural rights”.

The Human Rights Council was previously boycotted by the US during the presidency of George W Bush. This was at a time when John Bolton, a fierce critic of the UN, was America’s envoy. Obama ended the boycott but Bolton is now back as Trump’s national security adviser and there are suggestions that he instigated the decision to pull out.

The US is currently in the midst of a three-year term as a member of the council which is due to expire in December next year. Its last review under the UPR system was in May 2015, so it is not due for another one until 2020.

The Human Rights Council is a seriously flawed body, but not entirely useless. However, Trump’s decision to pull out looks more like a show of support for Israel than a genuine move towards reform, and for that reason is unlikely to get much international support.

Coming in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran and his antics at the G7 summit it’s also a further sign that he has little interest in multilateral solutions to international problems.

Originally published at



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Brian Whitaker

Brian Whitaker

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: Author of 'Arabs Without God'.