SUCCESSIVE US administrations have largely remained supportive of Israel but with condition attached to it that is ‘legitimate’ Israeli attempts to achieve an accord with a Palestinian population dispossessed by Israel’s war of independence in 1948. With this latest US administration in place, that fundamental and conditional principle of US statecraft is now in question. No US administration going back to Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower has been as indulgent towards the state of Israel as Trump administration. President Donald Trump has delivered in spades what Israel and its US supporters have demanded. This includes a withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, pull out from Paris climate agreement, the relocation of the US embassy and the latest in an increasingly isolationist approach towards international institutions since US President Donald Trump took power is the withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). On 19 June 2018, US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, made this latest announcement alongside US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo citing “hypocritical and self-serving” UNHCR for its “chronic bias” against Israel.
Though Pompeo praised Haley for putting “American interests first” but the withdrawal has roundly been condemned by many including the rights groups. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, described the US move as “disappointing, if not really surprising”.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson while calling the move regrettable has said his country “made no secret of the fact that the U.K. wants to see reform of the Human Rights Council, but we are committed to working to strengthen the Council from within. It is the best tool the international community has to address impunity in an imperfect world and to advance many of our international goals. That’s why we will continue to support and champion it.”
Germany has also voiced “deep disappointment” at the U.S. decision to withdraw from the UN rights council while stating, “For us, the Human Rights Council is the central intergovernmental forum for dealing with human rights issues and an important component of the international order. At a time when multilateralism and human rights are coming under immense pressure all around the world, we have a great interest in preserving and strengthening the Human Rights Council. We should address criticism of the Human Rights Council’s work from within, not from without.”
The US’ grievance against the HRC that has led to its withdrawal is the HRC’s treatment of Israel allegedly because of its politicized character. As the members of HRC are representatives of their governments, the HRC is a politicized body, like its predecessor. State governments are political constructs, so any institution made up of government representatives is inevitably political too. However, one cannot deny organization’s efficacy at many other occasions as well.
As far as bias against Israel is concerned, the allegation is not justified this time. For a start, Israel has committed serious human rights abuses that are worthy of the HRC’s condemnation. It is absurd for Pompeo to have implicitly suggested that Israel has “committed no offence”. Any HRC bias does not mean that the substance of its criticisms is wrong. The recent killings of Palestinian protesters, targeted killings, illegal settlements, forced evictions, war crimes, the Gaza blockade and, most fundamentally, an ongoing occupation of Palestine that has lasted for more than 50 years, will cause critics to proliferate.
Also if HRC is politicized then so is the US. Just as some states instinctively oppose Israel, the US instinctively supports it. Neither position is principled. The US has also protected other allies, such as Bahrain. Outside the HRC, US President Donald Trump is not a credible leader on human rights. He seems to have an affinity with leaders with horrible records, such as India’s Narinder Modi and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. Most recently, he responded to comments about North Korea’s human rights record, which is possibly the worst in the world, by praising the “talented” Kim Jong-un. Moreover, the US also has long had its own serious human rights problems, which are too numerous to mention, but which include torture and the highest proportion of incarceration in the world. Its recent decision to separate migrant children from their parents and intern them reflects its status as the only country in the world that has failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
It is true that UNHRC like all other international institution have many serious flaws, but walking away won’t fix them. Principled engagement might. Its time to shun Trump administration’s “one-dimensional human rights policy” as defending human rights abuses around the world is more important than saving Israel. To save America we will have to save humanity.