America’s exit diminishes the UN human rights body’s legitimacy

The country calls the United Nations Human Rights Council a “cesspool of bias.” The then US President Barack Obama had brought the country back into the UNHRC fold in 2009, but the Trump dispensation has far less patience with the niceties of diplomacy

columns Updated: Jun 22, 2018 18:18 IST
United Nations Human Rights Council
US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, announcing the withdrawal of the US from the United Nations Human Rights Council at the Department of State in Washington, US, June 19, 2018(REUTERS)

This week, the United States’ Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, stood at the lectern in the Treaty Room at the State Department, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flanked her. She spoke softly, a nine-minute announcement that, if you switched the volume off, could have been another governmental gabfest to make your eyes glaze over. But with the Trump administration, drama is always in play, and Haley’s muted tones contained a muscular message: America was leaving the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Critics immediately associated the move with UNHRC’s high commissioner, Jordanian Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, coming down hard on the US’s latest controversy, the separation of families that cross into the countryillegally, and children being held captive in cage-like quarters. With US President Donald Trump choosing conviction over compassion, that may have been a necessary comment.

But conflating those remarks with Haley’s isn’t correct. The Geneva-based UNHRC has among its ranks member-nations like China and Venezuela that are hardly champions of human rights. And in times when Syria is at the centre of violations of this nature and a political protest is put down in Iran, the UNHRC has an obsessive compulsive disorder over Israel. While it does at times indulge in overkill, only the most biased would consider Israel as the world’s worst human rights threat.

It isn’t Israel alone, though, that gets the stick. So does India, as with the recent report that called for “establishing a commission of Inquiry for a more comprehensive investigation” into Kashmir. Again, there may be problems with how India sometimes handles that fragile state, but to place it in such company isn’t warranted. That report, the first of its kind, got a strong rebuttal from India’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, Rajiv Chander, as he complained that it legitimises terrorism by referring to the UN designated terrorist entities as “armed groups” and calling terrorists “leaders.” Ambassador Chander, previously India’s consul general in Vancouver, placed that concern in the context of “cross border terrorism”. The future of the state’s governance may currently be in a flux, but democracy, with its safeguards, will persist there. As Haley riffed, the UNHRC is a body that’s turned into a “cesspool of bias”.

When the then US President Barack Obama brought the United States back into the UNHRC fold in 2009, similar concerns persisted, but his administration sought to reform it from within. The Trump dispensation has far less patience with the niceties of diplomacy and the utility of multilateral organisations and the withdrawal from the UNHRC may well be another indicator of isolationism. But what it does is dull that gloss of legitimacy that America’s entry had given it.

There’s much in Trump’s worldview to make India deeply uncomfortable, but getting the UN to reflect on reforms even if using an iron fist instead of finesse, is something New Delhi could see eye-to-eye on with Washington.

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 22, 2018 18:18 IST