20 Jun 2018

Global human rights come second to 'America first'

4:51 pm on 20 June 2018

The United States withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council today, accusing it of a "chronic bias against Israel," a move that activists warned would make advancing human rights globally even more difficult.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks as US Ambassador to the United Nation Nikki Haley looks on at the US Department of State in Washington DC on June 19, 2018.
The United States announced that it is withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council. / AFP PHOTO / Andrew CABALLERO-REYNOLDS

Photo: AFP

In the announcement, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley criticised Russia, China, Cuba and Egypt for blocking efforts to reform the council.

The US is halfway through a three-year term on the UN rights body, but its criticism of the council's operations have been a feature of the Trump administration, which has threatened to leave on several previous occasions.

"Look at the council membership, and you see an appalling disrespect for the most basic rights," said Ms Haley, citing Venezuela, China, and Cuba as the most hypocritical members.

She also cited the "unending hostility" towards Israel from the council, which has a standing agenda item, meaning it discusses Israel's possible breaches of human rights every time it meets.

She said the Council has for too long been a protector of human rights abusers, and a "cesspool" of political bias.

Washington's withdrawal is the latest US rejection of multilateral engagement, after it pulled out of the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal.

The 47-member council, created in 2006 and based in Geneva, began its latest session this week with a stinging rebuke of Mr Trump's immigration policy by the UN's high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein.

He called the policy of separating children from parents crossing the southern border illegally, "unconscionable".

Rights groups have criticised the Trump administration for not making human rights a priority in its foreign policy.

Critics say this sends a message that the administration turns a blind eye to human rights abuses.

Diplomats have said the US withdrawal from the body could encourage countries such as Cuba, Russia, Egypt and Pakistan, which resist what they see as UN interference in domestic issues.

Condemning withdrawal from the UN group, Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the decision "sends a clear message that the Trump administration does not intend to lead the world when it comes to human rights".

"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," Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said in a statement.

The US was seeking a reform to make it easier to kick out member states that have unacceptable rights records.

Ms Haley said the US withdrawal from the Human Rights Council "is not a retreat from our human rights commitments."

Twelve rights and aids groups, including Human Rights First, Save the Children and CARE, wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, warning the withdrawal would "make it more difficult to advance human rights priorities and aid victims of abuse around the world."

"The US absence will only compound the council's weaknesses," they said.

The move is just the latest in the wider Trump administration pattern of stepping back from international agreements and forums under the president's 'America First' policy.

Among other things, the US has turned its back on the TPP trade pact, and the UN's education and culture body UNESCO.

Its also threatening to get out of the NAFTA trade agreement, often described by the President as the "worst ever" deal signed by the US.

The President has not held back in his barbs at the leaders of both NAFTA partners, Mexico and Canada. Both inextricably linked to the US, and both apparently run by weak leaders... and these are the next door neighbours.

Its a trend to isolationism that has many in the US concerned. Human rights organisations like the American Civil Liberties Union believe the US shutting the proverbial door on multi-lateral organisations and agreements both betrays America's values as a nation, and harms the country's interests.

While Mr Trump's most high-profile piece of isolationist policy is the building of an actual wall on the Mexico border - it matches his economic rhetoric of shutting out the world.

In this he portrays himself as the ultimate patriot... putting "America First".

And its a stance that's taken hold many times in the US, an inward-turning that, for example, kept the US on its own through most of the 19th century.

The "Monroe Doctrine" of President James Munroe explicitly stated: "In the wars of the European powers, in matters relating to themselves, we have never taken part, nor does it comport with our policy, so to do."

Even at the nation's birth, founding father Thomas Jefferson advocated "Friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none".

The "Trump Doctrine" - if we can go that far - is increasingly being seen as a similar turning-away, a disengagement by a nation that was, once upon a time, regarded as the leader of the 'free world', and a bulwark against totalitarianism.

Ambassador Haley said the withdrawal from the Council is not a rejection of human rights, but the rejection of a flawed model.

But it's now the job of Washington to show how human rights - and not just those of the Israelis - are advanced by abandoning the international body set up to protect them.

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