21 June 2018

Africa: US Withdrawal From UNHRC - What Does It Mean?

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The rate at which the Trump administration is withdrawing its membership from legally constituted international bodies is real cause for concern.

Experts in international relations, international law, human rights, climate change, trade and others are probably revisiting the statutes to arrive at a reasonable understanding of what this means in global politics, and whether the United States is ceding its superpower position in quest of President Trump's "America First" and "Making America great again" mantra.

After months of speculation, US permanent representative to the United Nations Nikki Haley, together with Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo on Tuesday announced the US withdrawal from the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

It is ironic that the US made the announcement to quit the global rights body when it is currently mired in a storm over Trump's "zero tolerance" policy on immigration.

The separation and caging of migrant parents and their children, a cruel and shameful act, has been roundly condemned not just by American citizens, but world leaders, the Pope and the United Nations as well.

According to reports, more than 2 300 children have been taken from parents since May 5 under the zero tolerance policy. US Catholic bishops described it as "immoral", while Amnesty International described the policy as "nothing short of torture".

Governor Andrew Cuomo in a statement said, "The Trump administration's policy to tear apart families is a moral failing and a human tragedy."

British Prime Minister Theresa May weighed in saying, "The pictures of children being held in what appear to be cages are deeply disturbing . . . This is wrong, this is not something that we agree with, and this is not the United Kingdom's approach."

The US move was announced on the eve of World Refugee Day, which was commemorated yesterday. The rate at which the US is withdrawing membership from crucial international bodies is shocking and points to new political thinking and how to conduct state affairs differently on the world stage. The only conceivable conclusion is that the world should not be surprised if Trump announces that they are pulling out of the United Nations.

This has already been talked about in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, although not authoritatively.

There are precedents to the current withdrawal. In January 2017, the US announced its withdrawal from the Paris climate accord; it left another UN body - the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF); pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal; unilaterally recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and subsequently relocated its embassy from Tel Aviv.

Justifying the withdrawal, Ambassador Haley argued that their objective to reform the UNHRC from within had not worked: "One year ago, I travelled to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. On that occasion, I outlined the US priorities for advancing human rights and I declared our intent to remain a part of the Human Rights Council if essential reforms were achieved. These reforms were needed in order to make the council a serious advocate for human rights," said Ambassador Haley.

However, the insincerity of what Ambassador Haley said was evident considering the human rights issue at play while she was making the statement, labelling the UNHRC as a "protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias."

History will one day be the judge.

She added, "Look at the council membership and you see an appalling disrespect for the most basic human rights."

The United States' bone of contention is the way the UNHRC scrutinises Israel's human rights record, and that there are countries with a poor rights record.

How the United States' top diplomat fails to acknowledge that the same rights abuses they are complaining about are taking place in their own backyard for immigrants, and that children also have rights that need to be protected by the United States of America, is anybody's guess.

The US says quitting from the rights body is not an abandonment of its responsibilities, but only "taking this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organisation that makes a mockery of human rights," she said.

Only this week, the UN reported that a record 68,5 million people have been forced to flee their homes due to civil strife, violence and persecution.

Pope Francis yesterday cautioned that "people have to be settled in the best possible way, but creating psychosis is not the cure."

To the UNHRC, Haley's remarks were as old as the council itself.

"When the council was created in 2005, then US ambassador John Bolton lobbied successfully against the Bush administration joining it.

"After the 2008 elections, the United States opted to join, concluding that it could better steer the work of the council from the inside, including defending Israel, rather than from the sidelines," UN Dispatch reported.

The UN also thinks that this was not a fantastic idea, the same way as quitting the climate change agreement and the Iran nuclear deal were not.

The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth sums it up all: "The Trump administration's withdrawal from the Human Rights Council is a sad reflection of its one-dimensional human rights policy in which the US defends Israeli abuses from criticism above all else.

"By walking away, the US is turning its back not just on the UN, but on victims of human rights abuses around the world, including in Syria, Yemen, North Korea and Myanmar. Now other governments will have to redouble their efforts to ensure that the council addresses the world's most serious human rights problems."

But, leaving the rights body will not absolve the United States of its international obligations unless if it is prepared to cede its power and authority in other UN bodies, the United Nations Security Council included, where it has veto power.

Is the US prepared to have China and Russia in leading positions at the UN?

We are cognisant of the fact that the current turn of events might not be reversible as long as President Trump is in power.

We are also mindful that the US might withdraw from more treaties and agreements, contrary to the dictates of international law. We are also not confident that his allies can persuade him to rethink some of these self-inflicting damages, considering what happened at the G7 Summit in Canada recently, when it looked like the summit had turned into a G6+1.

But, when all is said and done, where is this path to isolation taking the United States?

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