The United States is withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said Tuesday, branding the global body a “cesspool of political bias.”
“We take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights,” she said at a press conference announcing the move.
The council, she added, has a “chronic bias against Israel.”
Haley said that if the council reforms, the United States “would be happy to rejoin.”
Although the US could have remained a non-voting observer on the council, a US official said it was a “complete withdrawal” and that the United States was resigning its seat “effective immediately.” The official wasn’t authorized to comment publicly and insisted on anonymity.
US officials said earlier Tuesday that the administration had concluded that its efforts to promote reform on the council had failed, and that withdrawal was the only step it could take to demonstrate its seriousness. It was not immediately clear if the US would remain a non-voting observer on the council.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appearing alongside Haley at the State Department, said there was no doubt that the council once had a “noble vision.”
But today we need to be honest,” Pompeo said. “The Human Rights Council is a poor defender of human rights.”
Haley and Pompeo stressed the decision had been made after a long year of efforts to shame the council into reform and to remove member states that themselves commit abuses.
“These reforms were needed in order to make the council a serious advocate for human rights,” Haley said. “For too long, the Human Rights Council has been a protector of human rights abusers, and a cesspool of political bias. Regrettably, it is now clear that our call for reform was not heeded.”
The Geneva-based body was established in 2006 to promote and protect human rights worldwide, but its pronouncements and reports have often infuriated the US — in particular, the council’s relentless focus on Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.
But, as Haley stressed, Washington also believes it comes up short on criticizing even flagrant abuses by US opponents like Venezuela and Cuba.
“Countries have colluded with each other to undermine the current method of selecting members,” Pompeo said. “And the council’s continued and well-documented bias against Israel is unconscionable,” he said.
“Since its creation, the council has adopted more resolutions condemning Israel than against the rest of the world combined,” he noted.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the US move, branding the council “a biased, hostile, anti-Israel organization that has betrayed its mission of protecting human rights.”
Haley, who issued a warning a year ago that Washington would make good on its threat to leave the council if reforms were not carried through, used even starker language.
“We take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights,” she said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres regretted the US decision, adding: “The UN’s human rights architecture plays a very important role in the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide.”
Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon welcomed the announcement, saying in a statement that the US “has proven, yet again, its commitment to truth and justice and its unwillingness to allow the blind hatred of Israel in international institutions to stand unchallenged.”
“The Human Rights Council has long been the foe of those who truly care about human rights around the world,” Danon said immediately after Haley spoke. “We thank President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador Nikki Haley for their leadership, and call on the moral majority at the UN to hold all of its institutions accountable.”
Haley had threatened to withdraw from the council in June 2017 unless it reformed, including by removing its built-in procedural mechanism to bash Israel.
The council’s “relentless, pathological campaign” against a state with a strong human rights record “makes a mockery not of Israel, but of the council itself,” she said at the time during a speech in Geneva, hours before she made her way to Israel for her first visit to the Jewish state.
Haley had listed several conditions for the US remaining in the council, including the need to abolish Agenda Item 7 (“the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories”), which since its adoption in 2007 has singled out Israel for perpetual censure, a measure that no other country faces at the UN body.
“There is no legitimate human rights reason for this agenda item to exist,” Haley said last year. “It is the central flaw that turns the Human Rights Council from an organization that can be a force for universal good, into an organization that is overwhelmed by a political agenda.”
A full pullout by the US would leave the council without one of its traditional defenders of human rights. In recent months, the United States has participated in attempts to pinpoint rights violations in places like South Sudan, Congo and Cambodia.
Opposition to the decision from human rights advocates was swift. A group of 12 organizations including Save the Children, Freedom House and the United Nations Association – USA said there were “legitimate concerns” about the council’s shortcomings but that none of them warranted a US exit.
“This decision is counterproductive to American national security and foreign policy interests and will make it more difficult to advance human rights priorities and aid victims of abuse around the world,” the organizations said in a joint statement.
Added Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch: “All Trump seems to care about is defending Israel.”
The announcement came just a day after the UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, denounced the Trump administration for separating migrant children from their parents.
There are 47 countries in the Human Rights Council, elected by the UN’s General Assembly with a specific number of seats allocated for each region of the globe. Members serve for three-year terms and can serve only two terms in a row.
A key question will be where a US pullout will leave Israel if its biggest and most powerful defender abandons its voting rights or drops out of the council altogether.
Since last year, Haley’s office has pushed the council and its chief not to publish a UN database of companies operating in West Bank settlements, a so-called blacklist that Israel is concerned could drive companies away and cast a further pall over its presence in the Palestinian-claimed West Bank.
Last month, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman called for Israel and the United States to withdraw from the council over what he termed its “hypocrisy” in criticizing the Jewish state’s Gaza policy.
But Israel has never been a member state of the Human Rights Council, whose members are elected by the UN General Assembly.
“We are cooperating with the council and we have an embassy to the UN institutions in Geneva… but we are not currently members of the council,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon said on Tuesday, a few hours before the US announcement.
A US pullout might also be largely symbolic: The United States’ current term on the council ends next year, when it could revert to the observer status held by other countries that are not members. In that situation, the US would be able to speak out on rights abuses, but not to vote.
The United States has opted to stay out of the Human Rights Council before: The administration of president George W. Bush decided against seeking membership when the council was created in 2006. The US joined the body only in 2009 under president Barack Obama.
The expected US announcement was welcomed by Israel’s Deputy Minister for Diplomacy, Michael Oren.
“Amb. Nikki Haley will soon announce America’s withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council. This is a welcomed response to a body that condemned Israel more than all other countries combined. The US now signals its refusal to lend legitimacy to UN bias against Israel and Jews,” he tweeted earlier on Tuesday,
Reaction to the anticipated move from human rights advocates was equally swift.
“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,” said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch.
“All Trump seems to care about is defending Israel,” he said, adding that it would be up to the remaining members to ensure that the council addresses serious abuses.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric declined commenting directly, saying: “We will wait to hear the details of that decision before commenting fully.”
But, he added: “What is clear is that the secretary-general is a strong believer in the human rights architecture of the UN and the active participation of all member states in that architecture.”
The withdrawal also follows strong UN criticism of Trump’s policy to separate migrant children from their families at the US-Mexico border, though the Trump administration has not yet explicitly cited that criticism, delivered Monday by UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, as a reason for pulling out.
Speaking of the Trump administration policy, Hussein said, “the thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable.”
Since Trump took office, the United States has quit the UN cultural agency UNESCO, cut UN funding, and announced plans to quit the UN-backed Paris climate agreement.