by Mitchell Plitnick
In a move that seemed very likely when Donald Trump was elected president and was cemented when he appointed Nikki Haley as ambassador to the United Nations, the United States withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on Wednesday. The stated reasons for the US decision were the bias against Israel at UNHRC and the fact that some undeniably egregious human rights violators sit on the council. But these explanations become flimsy once you examine them.
Because it routinely accuses any critic of its policies of bias, Israel is like the boy who cried wolf. And it’s not just the leaders: many Israelis and supporters of Israel around the world genuinely believe that there is bias against Israel everywhere they turn. This feeling did not come into being with the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, but no Israeli prime minister has ever come close to magnifying that paranoia as much as he has.
Israel uses these lamentations to further entrench sympathy from its supporters and help them to believe that all that stuff about the occupation is just the result of bias, of Israel being blamed for Hamas’s actions or for things taken out of context. Although it’s easy to dismiss those statements as propaganda, it is foolish to give Israel ammunition.
The UNHRC does just that, however. In its earliest days, it focused on Israel to the point of obsession. That didn’t happen because of anti-Semitism, but for the same reason Israel gets routinely savaged in UN General Assembly (UNGA) votes. it is a significant human rights violator and, although it has the US protecting it in the Security Council—and therefore shielding it from any material consequences of its actions—it is one issue that a wide swath of countries can agree on.
As a result, the UNHRC, more than any other body in the UN, can legitimately be accused of being unfair to Israel. That Israel is the only country that merits a permanent agenda item is patently absurd, and unnecessary. That one fact, which the UNHRC stubbornly refuses to change, gives enormous ammunition to Israel and the United States, and it bolsters the largely bogus arguments that they use to cover many of the worst human rights violations of the occupation and the siege of Gaza.
The bias at the UNHRC allows Israel to paint the entire UN as biased, a point recognized by several UN secretaries general. For example, Ban Ki-Moon stated in 2007 that he was “disappointed at the Council’s decision to single out only one specific regional item, given the range and scope of allegations of human rights violations throughout the world.” He was, of course, referring to Israel.
To a certain extent the interference the US runs for Israel in the Security Council more than makes up for UNHRC and UNGA statements against Israel that have no teeth. But addressing bias by creating a counterbalancing bias is a problematic solution at best. In this case, it strengthens the US argument that it needs to defend its ally against the bias it faces. Legitimate investigations into Israeli conduct are undermined before they begin (as was the case with the Goldstone Report into the 2008-9 Israeli attack on Gaza). Most of all, it further politicizes the issue of the occupation while moving it further away from the rule of international law, the only arena where the Palestinians stand a chance against the US and Israel.
Ultimately, of course, Israel gets hammered in the UNHRC and the UNGA because it violates Palestinian human rights on a constant basis and magnifies those violations with larger crimes, such as those in Gaza in recent weeks. But that doesn’t mean that it makes sense to abandon a fair approach to legal issues. On the contrary, given the nature of the defenses Israel offers, impartial judgments and equality under the law are absolutely indispensable. The UNHRC has fallen very short in this regard. Although Palestinians and their supporters cheer many of its resolutions, this abandonment of basic principles of jurisprudence does a great deal more harm than good to the Palestinian cause.
Obama In, Trump Out
Donald Trump has willfully oriented his policies, foreign and domestic, as anti-Obama. If Barack Obama did it, Trump wants to either reverse it or do the opposite.
In this case, Trump isn’t just differentiating himself from Obama by quitting the UNHRC. From the very beginning, Haley—certainly with the stamp of approval from the White House as well as her predecessor, John Bolton—came not to engage but to harangue. Her adversarial positions at the United Nations are meant to endear her and her boss to the Israeli government and, perhaps more to the point, Israel’s right-wing supporters in the US. But diplomacy is not high on the agenda. Unlike other members of the Trump administration, Haley is capable of diplomacy and even leadership in the international arena. She demonstrated that when she got China and other nations to agree to ratchet up sanctions on North Korea.
But she and Trump approach the UN with one phrase: America First. Given the deference Trump has shown to Netanyahu, that means Israel is along for the ride.
Obama had a different view. He worked hard and succeeded at reversing the anger that George W. Bush’s disdain for multilateralism had generated. Far from the abdication of global leadership that Obama was accused of by the right and that Trump has fully embraced, Obama was engaged. He recognized that leadership meant pursuing the US agenda while being considerate of those of its allies—all its allies.
For all of Israel’s complaints, the strategy worked for it as well. A study by the Council on Foreign Relations showed that US involvement at the UNHRC cut the number of Israel-specific resolutions by more than half. It also dramatically increased the attention to other countries’ human rights violations.
Obama didn’t erase all trace of bias from the UNHRC, but the shift with the US on the council was dramatic. That’s why it is not surprising that Israeli journalist Barak Ravid reported that
Israeli foreign ministry officials tell me they are concerned that US withdrawal from the UN human rights council will make it harder to block anti-Israeli initiatives on the council. The officials say that even though they feel the council is extremely biased against Israel, US membership helped to soften or fend off some anti-Israeli steps.
One of those initiatives is a fact-finding mission looking into Israel’s use of deadly force against unarmed protesters in Gaza. Ravid reports that Israeli officials told him “they are concerned that without the U.S. it will be close to impossible to influence the commission’s composition, mandate and conclusions.”
Is this another case of the US being more pro-Likud than Likud?
Who’s the Human Rights Violator?
The issue of the UNHRC treatment of Israel is certainly a significant factor in the US decision. But that factor has been there all along. The US could have quit the council at any time. So why now?
Lauren Wolfe, at The Atlantic, offers an alternative theory.
Human-rights experts told me that one of Trump’s most likely, and most insidious, arguments for the move is to prevent the United States from being called out on its own alleged human-rights abuses. Trump has led an orchestrated attack on press freedom, while Congress has rolled back protections for women and girls both at home and abroad. HRW also points to media reports that say the United States has interrogated detainees in Yemen in secret prisons known for torture. Now, the Trump administration has enacted a policy to separate families attempting to cross the border illegally. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, called the policy ‘government-sanctioned child abuse.’ For the Trump administration, decrying the very body that plans to criticize you is a simple, if blunt, way to try to discredit it.
The timing of the decision strongly suggests that Wolfe is on to something here. Trump has established a strong pattern of intemperate responses to criticism.
Staunch supporters of Israel also question whether this helps their cause. Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) may be a Democrat, but he is as zealous a pro-Israel voice as there is in Congress. He sharply criticized the move, saying, “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…However, this administration’s approach when it sees a problem is to take the United States off the field.”
US involvement clearly made a difference. Writing in 2015, Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institute described the contemporary impact of the UNHRC.
Their recommendations have led to concrete action on problems ranging from combating torture in Jordan to protecting journalists in Cambodia, decriminalizing blasphemy in the United Kingdom and reducing prison sentences in China. The universal periodic review process is adding another layer of transparency and accountability by holding all states to their commitment to uphold international norms: Nearly half of the recommendations made were partially or fully implemented just two-and-a-half years after the first round of reviews.
On some of the most serious cases, the Council has taken action that has led to important and unprecedented results. The commission of inquiry on North Korea, for example, which delivered a hard-hitting report in 2014 documenting crimes against humanity, has changed the conversation from denials of human rights abuses to acceptance that the UN Security Council must address the matter, including through a potential referral to the International Criminal Court. On Sri Lanka, the Council has shifted from initially applauding the bloody termination of the conflict in 2009 to demanding an independent investigation of the abuses; this international pressure had a direct effect on subsequent elections in the country, and helped bring to power a new leader who immediately adopted a set of important reforms.
A body that is horribly underfunded and that has no enforcement mechanism at its disposal whatsoever did all that. With the US no longer a part of it, such dramatic progress is much less likely to be achieved against such staunch obstacles.
The UNHRC does include very problematic countries. The US is quick to point the finger at Venezuela, Cuba, and China, but that list should feature US allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt at least as prominently. Many would argue that the US has no place on the UNHRC either, and certainly Trump strengthens that case.
In the end, the United States did not advance the cause of Israel or of any other “reform” it wanted at the UNHRC. Perhaps the increasing isolation of the US, and of Israel, from those countries that wish to advance universal human rights will eventually be a positive. But the world would be better off if regional and global powers of such significance were working, even with missteps, to advance that doctrine. Trump’s and Haley’s disdain for human rights and international law only moves the world farther away from achieving a universal and enforceable system of rights.