US set to announce exit from UN Human Rights Council

Haley and Pompeo expected to announce move Tuesday night after Trump administration criticism of the body’s obsessive focus on Israel

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley gestures prior to address a session of United Nations Human Rights Council on June 6, 2017 in Geneva. (AFP PHOTO / Fabrice COFFRINI)
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley gestures prior to address a session of United Nations Human Rights Council on June 6, 2017 in Geneva. (AFP PHOTO / Fabrice COFFRINI)

The United States will announce on Tuesday that it is withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council, which it accuses of bias against Israel, officials said.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley will make the announcement at a press conference with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington at 5:00 p.m.

UN officials speaking on the condition of anonymity confirmed they were expecting the US to announce it was quitting the rights body.

Officials said 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.

Haley threatened to withdraw from the council in June 2017 unless it reforms, 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.

The council has passed more resolutions targeting Israel than against all other nations combined.

Haley 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.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas is seen on a TV screen while speaking during a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council on February 27, 2017 in Geneva, Switzerland (AFP/Fabrice Coffrini)

“There is no legitimate human rights reason for this agenda item to exist,” Haley said at the time. “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.

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 would leave Israel if its biggest and most powerful defender abandons its voting rights or drops out of the council altogether.

A general view of the 37th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on February 26, 2018 in Geneva. (AFP Photo/Jean-Guy Python)

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 one of the 47 members states of the Human Rights Council, which were 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 on Tuesday,

Supporters of Israel rallying outside the UN building in Geneva as the Human Rights Council met, June 29, 2015 (World Jewish Congress)

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.”

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein talks with president of the Human Rights Council Vojislav Suc (R) during the opening of the 38th session of the UN Human Rights Council on June 18, 2018 in Geneva. (AFP PHOTO / ALAIN GROSCLAUDE)

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.

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