This week, the Trump administration walked away from the United Nations Human Rights Council. The White House cited the slow pace of institutional reform, an anti-Israel bias, and the election of undemocratic governments in Cuba, Congo and Venezuela, among others, to the council itself. The reform of the Human Rights Council is necessary, but will the United States get the deal it has been looking for? If history and practice serve as guides, America’s withdrawal may actually reduce the prospects of fixing the council’s flaws while undercutting its best work.
U.S. criticisms and insistence on reform are not new and human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also have long demanded that the council should suspend members that commit major rights offenses themselves. Even with reform, the Human Rights Council, which is composed of elected governments, is not, and likely will never be, the decisive enforcer of human rights standards. However, withdrawal will not give the United States much leverage in negotiations over the workings of the council. Remaining inside the chamber while pressing for improvements would be a more worthwhile approach.
For most countries, the council’s credibility will, as it always has, depend less on U.S. participation and more on what the council does moving forward. Here, the lack of U.S. participation and loss of funding could potentially reduce the council’s credibility by undercutting the work of its largely respected human rights experts and investigators. At the same time, some authoritarian regimes will welcome the U.S. decision and become more resistant to reform. Authoritarian adversaries of the United States will no longer have to endure American scolding in the council chamber and will face potentially less intrusive investigations from its human rights experts.
In the unlikely event that other U.N. states actually do offer to transform the council, any revamped council would likely be more flawed than the current one, assuming a deal can be reached at all. In 2006, the George W. Bush administration agreed to the current council’s structure as part of a broader U.N. reform package. Despite opposition from U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, the administration felt it had little choice but to accept. Since then, countries like China have been more willing to flex their diplomatic muscle and less willing to defer in multilateral negotiations. They will rally nations against any U.S. ultimatum that, in return for continued U.S. participation, establishes strict new membership criteria and gives the U.S. greater control over the council’s agenda.
Withdrawal from the council is also likely to backfire and hurt American interests. The United States will not be able to stop resolutions it disagrees with, nor will it be able to call out abusive governments or take a leading role passing resolutions on, for instance, protecting freedom of expression, investigating violations in Burma and South Sudan or condemning abuses by the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria.
The United States will be also excluded from council debates on thematic or country reports prepared by special rapporteurs. These expert reports document government abuses and failures to establish reliable human rights protections. Why is that important? To offer one example, the council’s recommendation that the North Korea report be submitted to the U.N. Security Council put considerable diplomatic pressure on the North Korean regime. Although President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump takes shot at new GOP candidate in Ohio over Cleveland nickname GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default MORE has shown little interest in pressuring North Korea on human rights, the episode demonstrates that these reports do much more than gather dust.
Finally, U.S. withdrawal will make it more difficult to assist some governments that want to bolster their own national human rights protections. These governments often lack the expertise and resources to strengthen human rights institutions, and they turn to the United Nations for assistance because of its universal membership and its mandate to consider cultural and historical factors when helping implement international human rights standards. Without U.S. support, the United Nations may provide fewer of these services, leaving countries to seek out less robust sources or not seek assistance at all.
The Trump administration should reconsider its decision because remaining a member of the Human Rights Council offers the best, and perhaps only, chance for implementing successful if incremental reform. The reform agenda should look beyond addressing its flaws to bolstering those parts with demonstrated potential such as the Universal Periodic Review, where no country can be fully shielded from peer scrutiny of its practices, and the work of its human rights experts. Make no mistake, there are no shortcuts when it comes to changing the United Nations. American strategy should be based on a long diplomatic slog that cannot be circumvented with ultimatums.
Michael Schroeder is senior lecturer and assistant dean for masters education of the American University School of International Service.