Beware the Ides of Leaving the Human Rights Council

Yes, it’s a flawed body. But if Trump abandons the HRC, it will give Russia, China, and Iran a free hand to rewrite the global rules on human rights.

General view of the UN Human Rights Council session after the United Nations (UN) Commission of Inquiry on Syria delivered the latest report on the situation in the war-ravaged country to the UN Human Rights Council on September 16, 2014 in Geneva.   AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI
General view of the UN Human Rights Council session after the United Nations (UN) Commission of Inquiry on Syria delivered the latest report on the situation in the war-ravaged country to the UN Human Rights Council on September 16, 2014 in Geneva. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI

The United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) is a multilateral institution that conservatives love to hate. It can make good fodder for incredulous expressions of outrage over the rest of the world’s fecklessness. Though its purpose is to defend human rights, its membership consistently includes some of the world’s worst rights violators, including China, Cuba, Egypt, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. The HRC maintains a standing agenda item devoted to chastising rights violations by Israel, while dealing with every other nation under a separate, common framework.

It is no surprise that a new Republican administration has revived calls for the United States to withdraw from the 47-nation body. Israel is lobbying hard for a U.S. exit, a case that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and former Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren have pressed in recent days. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is reportedly receptive to their pleas, though insiders say U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley wants more time before a decision is reached. Before repudiating the HRC, Haley and her fellow Republicans should take a hard look at the Geneva body’s record, risks, and potential.

When Barack Obama took office he pledged an “era of engagement,” making the reversal of the George W. Bush administration’s decision to spurn the council a natural. In an age of “America First,” however, deliberating over rights abuses with a group that includes clear rogues bent on singling out Israel may seem a less compelling proposition. But the obvious and hard-to-refute structural critiques of the council obscure the useful role that the United States can play by being present. To put it another way, there are dangers to leaving the HRC in the hands of those who would be all too happy to see Washington go. While the Obama administration’s case for engaging the council may hold little sway in the age of Trump, there is reason to stay based on avowed Republican goals and priorities.

First, there’s Israel. It is beyond dispute that the composition and politics of the United Nations render it a receptive environment for the Palestinian cause. It is also true that Israel’s deteriorating rights record is a legitimate subject for international scrutiny. But the HRC’s structural bias in the form of its standalone agenda item makes it impossible for Israel to get a fair shake, making it easy for both Washington and Jerusalem to dismiss any criticism the council renders. That said, Israel has fared far better at the HRC with the United States present. In just over three years between the council’s founding in 2006 and Washington’s entry to the world body in late 2009, the HRC held six special sessions to condemn abuses by Israel — the same number it held to address all other human rights emergencies anywhere in the world. In the seven and a half years since the United States arrived, the council has held just two such sessions on Israel, and 13 on the rest of the world, including five addressing the crisis in Syria. The treatment of Israel at the HRC improved at a time when Palestinians advanced their role at the U.N. through a General Assembly vote according them official observer status, full membership in the U.N.’s Education, Cultural, and Science Organization (UNESCO), and through a rare U.S. abstention on a Security Council settlements resolution.

No observer of the HRC, not even Israel, would deny that the U.S. presence accounts for the dramatic difference in the pace of special sessions from 2009 onward. Yet Israel is calling for the Trump administration to walk away — despite knowing it will be left worse off in the hands of the world body. Jerusalem calculates that U.S. withdrawal will discredit the HRC, blunting the force of its criticisms. Its outlook reflects a Washington-centric Israeli view where the rest of the globe doesn’t much matter as long as Washington has your back. But as the centers of power shift and Russia and China flex their muscles, Israel might want to think twice about asking its protector to abandon its post. In America’s absence, HRC delegations could step up efforts to trigger action on Israel by the International Criminal Court, a scenario Jerusalem desperately fears.

While the White House seems mostly uninterested in global human rights defense writ large, that is not true of Republicans in Congress. The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, passed late last year, was championed by Republican Sen. John McCain. Republicans Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton have styled themselves as the Senate’s chief champions of human rights in Hong Kong, introducing legislation on the subject last year. When Tillerson did not turn up for the release of the State Department’s annual human rights report this month, Rubio criticized him publicly.

By spurning the HRC, Republicans who care about international human rights would freeze out a mechanism that has proven to have the potential to hold some of the world’s most serious violators accountable. In 2014, a council-appointed panel issued the definitive report on rights abuses in North Korea — including prison camps, starvation, and executions — finally quieting the Chinese and others who had apologized for Pyongyang’s abysmal record but could no longer in the face of internationally sanctioned facts. While it’s impossible to say whether the mass war crimes committed in Syria will be prosecuted, evidence gathered over the years by an HRC panel that documented barrel bombings, chemical weapons use, and torture could provide the basis for broad-scale prosecutions.

In 2009, before the United States joined the council and amid the Sri Lankan civil war, the Europeans called a special session to try to condemn abuses by Colombo. But Sri Lankan diplomats hijacked the proceedings, securing a resolution that commended its assault on Tamil civilians. Only after the United States joined the HRC was the damage gradually undone through the establishment of a credible Commission of Inquiry that culminated in a damning report. The findings helped fuel the defeat of the country’s repressive president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and usher in an era of greater accountability for war crimes and attention to political and minority rights. None of these strides would have been possible without dogged U.S. leadership.

In abandoning the council, Washington would also cede its influence over critical global debates about the very nature of human rights. Russia, China, and other authoritarian nations do not interpret human rights as the United States and its allies do.

The Russians have long tried to insert the notion of defending “traditional values” into the global human rights agenda as a way to thwart the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals, shield domestic violence from public scrutiny, and justify the subordination of minorities and women. For years, Muslim majority countries secured adoption of resolutions favoring bans on the so-called defamation of religions. Motivated by the drive to punish publications offensive to Islam and the Prophet Mohammed (think Danish cartoons), the prohibitions sought contravened international protections for free speech. Other delegations have introduced nebulous conceptions, including a “right to development” that risks diluting the meaning and force of the concept of human rights.

The United States spends considerable energy at the HRC marshaling defense against these distortions and dilutions, striving to safeguard the integrity of foundational human rights instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — both of which have helped instantiate principles of freedom and justice worldwide. As the rule of the law and the Western-led order are called into question worldwide, giving Russia, China, Iran, and others a free hand to rewrite the global rules on human rights is dangerous.

While Israel is the only country openly arguing for the United States to leave the Human Rights Council, it would hardly be the only one happy to see Washington’s back. While some conservatives seem to look at a withdrawal as a good way to punish the world body, a U.S. exit would be a gift to Washington’s antagonists, ceding the playing field to those who put little stock in human rights.

Photo credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel

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