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US Withdraws from the UN Human Rights Council: A shameless hypocrisy

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On June 19th Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State, and Nikki Haley, Permanent Representative to the United Nations, announced that the United States would withdraw from the Human Rights Council.

Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo announcing US withdrawal from UN Human Rights Council

It cited as justification the "shameless hypocrisy" of allowing human rights violators to sit on the Council, the lack of a "fair or competitive election process" as well as a "well-documented bias against Israel". 

The United Nations Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body under the United Nations General Assembly.

Its founding document, General Assembly resolution 60/251, states that it is "responsible for promoting universal respect for the protection of all human rights" by addressing "violations of human rights... and make recommendations thereon".

It has almost no binding power on member states, working by deliberation and consensus of members, and as such its major function is to provide forums for discussion, opportunities for analysis and reports, and to establish a universal standard by which fighters for human rights can reference. 

There are few axioms of rhetoric that hold true and apply to politics, but one that seems to apply is whatever is omitted from a list is more important than what is included.

The comments of US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley provide a perfect example. 

Dotted throughout Nikki Haley's announcement of the US's withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council are examples of human rights abusers whose membership on the council contributed to the decision. 

China, Cuba, Iran, and, with particular emphasis, the Democratic Republic of the Congo are all deemed "unconscionable" abusers of human rights.

Although there is no doubt that these countries do violate human rights, exceptionalism appears near the end of the statement to separate the US from them: "America has a proud legacy as a champion of human rights... a proud legacy of liberating oppressed people and defeating tyranny throughout the world".

Here, there is the added frustration of this accusation being incrediably selective.

Taking each country listed this "proud legacy" includes the Imperial War against Cuba in 1898, and the subsequent post-war settlement allowing for future unilateral US intervention, as well as the taking of Cuban land which provided the land for the future human rights abuses in Guantanamo Bay.

Following the 1960 independence revolution of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the US president approved the assassination of the democratic leader of the people, Patrice Lumumba, in order to protect mining rights of US and Belgian companies.

After supporting the overthrow of a democratically elected leader of Iran in 1953, the United States supported both sides in the Iran-Iraq war and also turned a blind eye to Iraqi use of chemical weapons (something particularly resonant as regards Syria today).

Lastly, following the Chinese government's massacre of student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the United States failed to act in a decisive manner due to their interest in an economic partnership. 

Although each of these failings has their imprint today, what was omitted from Nikki Haley's comments were the various human rights abuses that the United States actively supports today.

The various illegal actions of Israel under international law seem to remain a difference of opinion; a difference held between two countries, the US and Israel, and the rest of the world.

Such a bold claim is evidenced by the General Assembly resolution of December 2017 which declared the United States' decision regarding its embassy in Jerusalem 'null and void' by an extraordinary majority.  

The United States also supports Saudi Arabia, a country not only violating the human rights of its own citizens but also engaging in war crimes which the US, and the UK, essentially underwrite with arms sales.

Furthermore, Myanmar has intermittently jumped on the world stage as a human rights abuser, but what is fairly consistent is the US (and the UK) have failed to stem abuses through simple measures such as supporting a UN sanctioned arms embargo, or an ICC referral. 

While it is easy to point out the hypocrisy of the United States, an abiding pastime of journalists today, what is harder to identify is why their withdrawal is significant given the Council's lack of power.

To answer this a quick glance at the agenda of the Council this year will show the Council's importance.

Among other things topics to be raised include human rights violations in Burundi, the position of Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar, an update on the situation in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and numerous other countries.

Many of these causes receive little to no media attention, and possibly even less attention from a United States run by a President who survives on 'shock and awe' and the fleeting nature of news cycles. 

The Human Rights Council provides a forum for activists and human rights supporters to speak about and formulate standards that fellow activists can refer to and rely on.

Two examples I have encountered personally is that of Joshua Wong who planned to speak in front of it to support the democracy movement in Hong Kong, as well as Burma Campaign UK whose work is aided by the Council's efforts.

Both the power of the Council and the move by the US are only symbolic, yet both have a profound impact on the world precisely because they are symbolic.

With a long enough view of history the decision of the US is not surprising or inconsistent, but it will make the work of human rights activists much harder from this point forward. 

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