On Wednesday, the United States declared it had decided to formally remove itself from the United Nations Human Rights Council; an organization US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley called ‘a cesspool of political bias‘. With rumours and misconceptions on this issue swirling around the media at record speed, it is vitally important to know the facts of what has happened and what that means.
The UNHRC was not the United Nations’ first attempt at a human rights watchdog. Established on March 15, 2006, the UNHRC was founded as a replacement for the UN Commission on Human Rights, an organization widely panned by observers for its tolerance of members with less than sparkling human rights records. However, the design of the UNHRC has seemingly consigned it to a similar fate. Made up of 47 rotating members elected by the UN General Assembly to three-year terms, states with poor human rights records have often been elected by those friendly to them.
Ambassador Haley specifically called out the presence of Venezuela, Iran, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Abusive dictators Nicolas Maduro and Joseph Kabila currently rule Venezuela and the DRC respectively, while Iran has been called out by independent human rights groups for failing to provide due process to those charged with crimes and for its lack of equal rights for women, among other criticisms.
The United States left the UNHRC this week due to a belief that itself and its ally Israel have been victims of uneven treatment by the body. While most critics have called out the United States’ recent policy of separating immigrant families who cross the US-Mexico border, many, including former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon, have claimed the UNHRC has not judged the Israel-Palestine conflict fairly. It is also important to know that leaving the UNHRC does not exempt the United States from criticism as after all, Israel is not, and has never been, a member.
This move by the United States is simply a protest of the UNHRC as a deeply flawed body that needs reform. Whether the protest is justified is another story. But whether or not the protest is justified, it is vital to note that leaving the UNHRC is all the United States has done. Despite any actions it has taken, the US has in no way renounced its commitment to the UN Declaration of Human Rights; the UN and the world’s foundational human rights document, ratified in 1948 after World War II. As it is a declaration, as opposed to a treaty or an alliance, there is no way for the United States to remove itself from responsibility to the Declaration of Human Rights short of completely leaving the United Nations, which would take a vote of Congress and is as close to impossible as anything.
Furthermore, due to the UN’s lack of legal authority the Declaration of Human Rights holds no power over the United States, or any other UN member state, for that matter. As the UNHRC has stated time and time again, countries often fail to adhere to the Declaration, whether it’s Israel, the United States, Russia, Iran, or anyone else. The only way to take concrete action against a country is through a Security Council vote. Unfortunately, as has been glaringly obvious through the UN’s lack of action in the Syrian Civil War, the Security Council rarely votes on anything without the US, China, or Russia utilizing their veto power.
Although it was a rash decision for the United States to leave the UNHRC in this fashion, it does not actually reduce its responsibilities to the UN or the Declaration of Human Rights, it simply means that at least in the near future the US will not play a role in upholding the document.