The UN Human Rights Council is a subsidiary body of the United Nations that serves to “promote universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all” and “address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon.” The inter-governmental body was formed in March 2006 to replace the 60-year-old Human Rights Commission. The extreme politicization of the Commission on Human Rights resulted in an overwhelming majority vote to establish the new UNHRC via Resolution 60/251, with 170 in favor, 4 against, and 3 abstentions.
Among the countries voting against the establishment of the UNHRC was the United States, which cited weak measures to exclude human rights abusing countries. Said countries would use positions in the UN HRC to obstruct criticism of their actions or attack other nations, a claim the Secretary-General acknowledged as the primary issue with the Human Rights Commission. Additionally, the Bush Administration had received allegations from UN members of human rights violations in Washington.
On March 31, 2009, the Obama Administration decided to seek a seat on the 47 member council. "Human rights are an essential element of American global foreign policy," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement. "With others, we will engage in the work of improving the U.N. human rights system. . . . We believe every nation must live by and help shape global rules that ensure people enjoy the right to live freely and participate fully in their societies." The reversal of the Bush Administration policy was met with some criticism domestically, but welcomed by UN members; for example, Norway withdrew from the ballot in support of the US’s efforts to create positive change. Human rights associations had long advocated for US membership.
Despite the Obama Administration’s attempt to subvert decisions taken by past US presidents through joining the UNHRC, current US President Donald Trump reversed Obama’s decision shortly after taking office. The US withdrew United Nations Human Rights Council on June 19, 2018 in protest of its “disproportionate focus on allegations of human rights abuses committed by its ally, Israel,” a country whose alleged human rights violations were frequently discussed. The Trump Administration also asserted that the council's “willingness to allow notorious human rights abusers to become members” further revealed its bias.
On the surface, it seems like the US's retreat from the UN HRC was a backward step in its human rights advocacy; however, this may not be the case. In an appearance with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.N ambassador Nikki Haley stated “I want to make it crystal clear that this step is not a retreat from our human rights commitment. On the contrary, we take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.” The US has since received support in its view that the UNHRC has morphed into its decommissioned predecessor, the Human Rights Commision.
The United States’s departure from the United Nations Human Right Council left many wondering if a U.S. withdrawal would lead to reforms in human rights protection. The departure of Israel' chief defender at the forum has left it defenseless to the barrage of resolutions focused solely on Israel’s human rights violations. “By withdrawing from the council, we lose our leverage and allow the council’s bad actors to follow their worst impulses unchecked — including running roughshod over Israel,” said Eliot L. Engel, the top Democrat on the House committee that oversees the State Department.
Despite the UN HRC’s flaws, it serves as the primary international organization drawing attention to human rights issues, conducting investigations into human rights abuses, and upholding global human rights standards. While some praise the US’s bold denunciation of a dysfunctional organization, others are concerned the United States’s departure undermines the UN HRC’s mission and sets a dangerous precedent for other countries to follow.