US withdrawal from UN Human Rights Council: What you need to know

The US is not alone in levelling criticism at the UN Human Rights Council over alleged abuses committed by its members.

Nikki Haley
Haley complained about anti-Israel bias and the UN body. [Toya Sarno Jordan/Reuters]

The US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has been roundly condemned by rights groups and was described as “disappointing, if not really surprising” by Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, made the announcement on Tuesday in Washington, DC, alongside US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

She cited “chronic bias” against Israel and hit out at the “hypocritical and self-serving organisation”. 

The move is the latest in an increasingly isolationist approach towards international institutions since US President Donald Trump took power.

It comes little over a month after the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal despite protests from its European allies and a year after the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement to combat climate change

Here we explain where the US criticism of the body stems from and what impact the decision is likely to have on its future.

What does the UNHRC do?

The UN body was established in 2006 with the aim of promoting and protecting human rights around the globe, as well as investigating alleged human rights violations.

It is made up of 47 member states, which are selected by the UN General Assembly on a staggered basis each year for three-year-long terms.

Members meet around three times a year to debate human rights issues and pass non-binding resolutions and recommendations by majority vote. 


The council also carries out the Universal Periodic Review of all UN member states, which allows civil society groups to bring accusations of human rights violations in member states to the attention of the UN.

Its recent investigations into human rights abuses include a fact-finding mission to Myanmar to investigate abuses against the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority and establishing a commission to look into abuses taking place in Syria. 

In May, the UNHRC voted to send a probe to Gaza to investigate the killing of Palestinian protesters by the Israeli army.

Why does the US have a problem with the UNHRC?

The US problem with the body is twofold: the make-up of its membership and what it considers a disproportionate focus on allegations of human rights abuses committed by its ally, Israel.

In 2006, when the council was established, then-US President George W Bush refused to join because the organisation included members accused by Washington of human rights violations.

The country changed tack under the former Obama administration, but the ascent of Trump put Washington’s continued membership back under the spotlight.

In 2017, Haley again argued that many of the council’s members were in no position to be scrutinising the human rights violations of other countries.

Membership of the body includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China, and several other countries that are widely and regularly condemned for human rights abuses by rights groups.

What has the reaction been like?

The EU said the decision by the US “risks undermining the role of the US as a champion and supporter of democracy on the world stage,” and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called the move “regrettable”.

On the other hand, Israel praised the decision as “courageous”.

The reaction among human rights groups and activists has been universally negative.

Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch said that the US was attempting to discredit the council because of its regular criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

“For the Trump administration, it’s more important to defend Israel from criticism by the UN Human Rights Council than to defend human rights victims in Syria, North Korea, Myanmar and South Sudan,” he wrote in a tweet, further condemning the Trump administration’s “one-dimensional human rights policy”. 

His colleague at HRW, Andrew Stroehlein, said the US was “turning its back not just on the UN, but on victims of human rights abuses around the world”.

Stroehlein said the UNHRC had its flaws, specifically the participation of “persistent rights violators”, such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, but added it had also worked towards holding human rights violators accountable.

“It has initiated investigations into rights violations in Syria, Yemen, Burundi, Myanmar, and South Sudan, and addresses key topics such as migration, counterterrorism and protecting women, LGBT people, people with disabilities and others from violence and discrimination,” he said.

“No international institution is perfect, many have serious flaws, but walking away won’t fix them. Principled engagement might.”

On its Twitter account, Amnesty International posted a sarcastic list of 10 reasons why the US was right to leave the UNHRC, all of which were blank.

Source: Al Jazeera