The U.S. Withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council
47/2018
21 JUN 2018 Spotlight
On 19 June, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). It is the subsidiary body of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) responsible for monitoring the state of human-rights protection and providing appropriate assistance to members of the UN with respect to compliance with international obligations. The U.S. decision weakens the international system of human-rights protection.

What place did the U.S. occupy in the UNHRC?

After the dissolution in 2006 of the Human Rights Commission, widely criticised (including by the U.S.) of selective treatment of states-violators of these rights and a lack of effectiveness, the UNHRC, composed of elected members of the UNGA, was established to replace the Commission. The U.S. criticised the UNHRC’s mandate from the outset as repeating the defects of its predecessor. As a result, from 2006 to 2008, the U.S. participated in its work only as an observer. In 2008, after the adoption of a resolution condemning Israel, the U.S. withdrew completely. In March 2009, President Barack Obama decided that the U.S. would return to working with the Council. Shortly before President Donald Trump took office, in October 2016, the U.S. was elected as a UNHRC member for the 2017–2019 term.

Why has U.S. left the UNHRC now?

The official reasons for the withdrawal were given by the U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN Nikki Haley. She cited a lack of effectiveness and that the UNHRC includes countries responsible for serious violations of human rights (she indicated China, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and the Democratic Republic of Congo). She also referred to the “disproportionate focus and unending hostility towards Israel.” She also mentioned the lack of will to reform the Council. These are not new arguments and previous American administrations also used them. It seems that the direct reason for why now could be the criticism of the U.S. in the UNHRC forum in connection with the procedures applied to immigrants entering the country on the border with Mexico. This could have accelerated the decision of the Trump administration, already reluctant to participate in multilateral mechanisms.

What are the likely consequences of the U.S. withdrawal?

The decision will adversely affect the international protection of human rights. It is true that the U.S. has declared that although now outside the UNHRC it remains bound by international obligations in this regard. However, this decision may have disadvantageous long-term effects from the point of view of the Western philosophy of international human-rights protection. China is active in the UNHRC, promoting its vision of human-rights protection, one based less on objective standards and more on a formula referred to as “cooperation and dialogue on an equal footing.” The U.S. exit also weakens those 47 UNHRC members who share the civilisational values of the transatlantic community (democracy, the rule of law, protection of human rights).

What will be the consequences for Poland?

Without the U.S. participating in the UN system of human-rights protection, the group of states acting to strengthen standards and improve the general state of human-rights protection in the world, including Poland, is weakened. The protection of human rights is an area in which Poland has been active and positively recognised in the UN since 1989. Accompanying other international law, human rights are values promoted during the Polish presidency of the UN Security Council in May. In addition, Poland intends to run for a UNHRC seat for the 2020–2022 term (elections will be held in 2019). The U.S. decision will not jeopardise the good Polish-American relations, although it cannot be ruled out that the U.S., aware of Poland’s ambitions for the UNHRC, could adopt a critical attitude towards the Council in bilateral contacts and try to persuade the Polish authorities to change their evaluation of this institution.