Liberal Rights Regime Suffers As U.S. Leaves UN Human Rights Council

On June 20th, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, announced that the world’s foremost power was leaving the United Nations Human Rights Council (the HRC). In sentiments echoed by U.S. President Donald Trump, Haley justified the decision as a response to the continued presence of human rights abusers on the HRC and through attacking it as “cesspool of political bias,” particularly against Israel.

Haley argued that the U.S. has spent a year pushing for reforms of the HRC to fix these issues, and said that most other countries agree with the critiques she leveled. “Almost every country we met with agrees with us, in principle and behind closed doors, that the Human Rights Council needs major, dramatic, systemic changes. Yet no other country has had the courage to join our fight,” she said.

The ‘Failings’ of the UNHRC

“The world’s most inhumane regimes continue to escape scrutiny and the HRC continues politicizing and scapegoating of countries with positive human rights records in an attempt to distract from the abusers in their ranks,” Haley said. Haley argued that the U.S. had pushed for several reforms to the HRC, but that no progress had been made on fixing its structural flaws. “When a so-called Human Rights Council cannot bring itself to address the massive abuses in Venezuela and Iran, and it welcomes to Democratic Republic of Congo as a new member, the HRC ceases to be worthy of its name,” the ambassador stated. Both Iran and Venezuela are members of the HRC.

The U.S.’ attack on the HRC is not without its truths. In an article for the Conversation, Reading University Professor of Law, Conflict, and Global Development, Rosa Freedman, argued that “there is no question that Israel commits human rights abuses…but since the HRC’s creation, those human rights abuses have received more scrutiny than grotesque atrocities elsewhere.” Professor Freedman points out that Israel is the only state singled out for scrutiny on the HRC’s permanent agenda (the oft-noted ‘Agenda Item 7’). She also notes that “Israel has received more of the HRC’s attention than the Democratic Republic of Congo (where millions of people have been killed or displaced in recent years), Darfur and Sri Lanka (where genocides were perpetrated), North Korea, and Yemen. And this is not just more than each of those countries – but more than all of them combined.”

Professor Freedman also notes that the other part of the U.S. rationale – the continued election of human rights abusers to the HRC – also has merit, pointing to the recent election of Burundi despite its ongoing systematic human rights violations. Attempts by the U.S. to push reforms are thus backed by very real issues in the HRC, which are often recognized by other countries in various settings. However, Professor Freedman neatly sums up the situation: “even though there is a disproportionate and excessive focus on Israel, the HRC does focus on an awful lot of other grave and crisis situations. And that work is not overshadowed or cancelled out simply because of bias against Israel.” (It is also worth noting that by withdrawing, the U.S. loses its ability to defend Israel in the HRC; even Israeli diplomats have expressed concerns about the decision). Further, the states that are on the HRC are elected by other states – so any human rights abuse practiced by members is part and parcel of the election process.

A Flawed Policy

The withdrawal of the U.S. thus is based on a highly unbalanced representation of the HRC, despite its basis in truth. NGO and advocacy groups have broadly condemned the action as irresponsible and self-interested. For example, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said that “the Trump administration’s withdrawal is a sad reflection of its one-dimensional human rights policy: defending Israeli abuses from criticism takes precedence above all else.” Senior UN figures have already expressed disappointment in the U.S.’ decision. Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressed regret about the withdrawal, and his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that “the Secretary-General would have much preferred for the United States to remain in the Human Rights Council.”

While the HRC has its flaws, it is the peak global intergovernmental human rights body and is broadly representative of the global community of states. As Professor Sarah Joseph (Director of the Castan Institute at Monash University) argues, “states tend to care more about what their peers think than what human rights experts might think.” The HRC has established several independent and impartial offices, and there are several in the UN more broadly. However, these organizations are easily ignored, while the opprobrium of other states is less readily dismissed.

Further, by removing itself from the HRC, the U.S. is denying itself a seat at the table. This limits its ability to both push for reforms and to continue to advocate for its own issues – making the U.S.’ role as a champion of democracy much less tenable. While the HRC does have its failings, with the U.S. as a member there was a significant global clout to any adopted resolutions and policies, even when they were non-binding. The U.S. controls the single greatest share of the world’s economy, military, and diplomatic resources by a significant margin, and very few countries are willing to intentionally alienate themselves from it. GlobalNews reports that multiple diplomats have expressed concern that the U.S. withdrawal could bolster states such as Cuba, Russia, Egypt, and Pakistan, which resist UN interference (which often focuses on human rights and democracy) based on claims of state sovereignty.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, cut to the heart of the matter in his critique, which he delivered via Twitter: “Given the state of human rights in today’s world, the U.S. should be stepping up, not stepping back.” The U.S. withdrawal undermines the multilateral system of liberal human rights that the U.S. has been a leader of almost perpetually since its inception. The multilateral, state-based, institutionalized form of international relations that has prevailed since World War II and flourished since the end of the Cold War relies on the participation and cooperation of all members of the international community within institutional parameters. While realpolitik must not be discounted as an important factor in the workings of these institutions (both structurally and politically), engagement through institutions has been the central plank of the liberal rights regime which attempts to transcend such individual state-based concerns. Withdrawing from the HRC is the latest step in what some commentators have called the negative internationalism of the U.S. under President Trump: the U.S.’ consistent move away from international agreements and organizations which require collective burden-sharing, such as in the U.S. withdrawal from the Nuclear Agreement with Iran and the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

Whither the UNHRC?

While the U.S.’ withdrawal may represent a blow to the HRC, it will not crumble and disappear. The multilateral governance system is more resilient than that. However, the departure of the U.S. creates a major power vacuum which other states are likely to exploit. For example, Frances Eve, a researcher for the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, points out that when China ran for re-election to the UNHRC in 2016, Chinese state media explicitly stated that the goal was to “actively declare China’s own human rights policy.” China’s model of human rights, if history is anything to go by, is likely to be significantly less democratic than the U.S. model, as well as more state-based and less focused around individual liberties (both due to the realpolitik of China’s developing economy and its more communitarian notions of society).

As an example, Ms. Eve notes that in June last year, China successfully sponsored its first resolution in the UNHRC. The resolution prioritized development over other human rights, which in many ways allows developing states to enact policies which infringe on all other rights (such as freedom of speech, expression, and association, among others) in the name of development. This institutionally undermines the principle of universal and inalienable rights; while in practice and in some circumstances some rights will always have to take precedence over others, human rights as an ideal doctrine requires all rights to be respected equally.

The manner of the U.S.’ withdrawal also creates issues beyond the potential for another state to assume a leadership position. The particular timing of the U.S. withdrawal coincides with when the U.S. record of human rights is increasingly under scrutiny, most prevalently due to international outcry over the immigration policies which separate children from their parents in cases of illegal immigration over U.S. borders. This is just the latest in a string of abuses and issues relating to human rights, including the use of torture and other abhorrent practices in the War on Terror. Further, the Trump administration can hardly be said to be the passionate and radical champion of human rights its critiques of the HRC make it out to be – Trump has been making connections and defending leaders such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and praising their leadership abilities while explaining away or ignoring the massive human rights abuses they perpetrate against their people. Particularly under the Trump administration, but also in previous administrations, the U.S.’ human rights record increasingly has been seen in a negative light on the world stage. Withdrawing while under such pressure sets a precedent for other states to create their own pretexts for de-legitimizing human rights organizations and to ignore their critiques of state behaviour, weakening the ability of such organizations to effectively point out and address human rights issues.


The UNHRC is flawed, both politically and structurally; almost no analysis can come to any other conclusion. However, it still represents the peak body for human rights on the global stage, and one which still sets the global community a standard of human rights – one which is debated with state interests at stake. While this may not be the same as an ideal rights standard (as the independent inquiries might be argued to be), it at least represents a standard that the major global players – the community of states – deem to be acceptable. With the U.S. taking a place at the table, it was able to be a leader and champion of democracy and liberal rights, despite its problems at home. Leaving the HRC, particularly in the manner it did, not only removes the U.S. from this privileged position, but damages the fabric of the liberal rights regime and the multilateral institutional framework which underpins it, leaving it open to subversion or challenge by other players. Not only that, but it is a flawed policy from the U.S. perspective; it impedes the ability for the U.S. to campaign against the ‘evils’ of the HRC that it proffered as the rationale for its departure, but also limits its ability to push for reforms more broadly.

By isolating itself from institutions, the U.S. both de-legitimizes the multilateral system and places itself in a weaker position to shape the future of global relations. While the UNHRC is a flawed institution, removing the U.S. from the equation is hardly likely to improve it. Instead, the negative internationalism characterizing the Trump administration is likely to damage the system as a whole. Global institutions (and their flaws) will not just disappear if the U.S. abandons them as it has the HRC; however, while the U.S .continues to turn its back, it will be up to other states to pick up the common burden and keep the system functioning.