America’s spat with the UN Human Rights Council

OF ALL the international arrangements President Donald Trump has forsaken, the UN Human Rights Council deserves the least sympathy. In announcing America’s withdrawal from the Geneva-based body, America’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, called it, “a protector of human-rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias.” Given that it currently includes abusers such as Congo and Venezuela among its 47 members, and is disproportionately fixated on alleged Israeli abuses, that was hard to deny. Yet America’s withdrawal will only make it harder to improve a body that has, despite its flaws, shown recent signs of promise. It also represents another small, but conspicuous, dent in America’s international leadership.

The council was formed in 2006, as the successor to the terminally discredited UN Commission on Human Rights, a body now best remembered for having had Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s then dictator, as its chairman a couple of years before its unlamented demise. The council was designed to be smaller, more orderly and more accountable. Its members are elected to three-year terms by the UN General Assembly, which can also vote, by a two-thirds majority, to remove any deemed to have committed “gross and systematic violations of human rights”. Not many have been. Yet the assembly performs valuable work.

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It carries out regular human-rights audits, known as “universal periodic reviews”, on each UN member state. It has also sent investigators to the scene of many alleged atrocities, including recently in Burundi, Eritrea, Myanmar, North Korea and Syria. Last month the council voted to send another mission to Gaza, to investigate the killing of Palestinian protesters by Israeli troops. That was justified, notwithstanding the body’s anti-Israel bias, which is symbolised by a standing agenda item on the Palestinian Territories that must be raised at every council meeting.

Moreover, under America’s influence, the anti-Israel animus has been growing less evident. Between 2006 and 2009, when America last boycotted the council, at the instigation of George W. Bush, six of its 12 “special sessions” were devoted to Israel. After America rejoined, under Barack Obama, only one of the 14 or so sessions was on Israel. The lesson is clear. If America truly wanted to stand with Israel and improve the UN body, it would not now join Eritrea, Iran and North Korea in refusing to take part in it.

That suggests its decision is motivated more by Mr Trump’s general aversion to international bodies. After all, he has previously talked of withdrawing from the UN altogether. Quitting the council is far short of that, but it is damaging to American leadership nonetheless. Indeed, that is especially true given the timing. Withdrawing from the world’s main human-rights forum even as its president was grappling with his policy of dividing migrant children from their families is not a good look for the shining city upon a hill.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline "The art of the empty gesture"