President Trump's “zero tolerance” immigration policy that's resulting in separating migrant children from their families was slammed as “unconscionable” by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council on Monday.
As if on cue, the White House followed up Tuesday by pulling out of the Council altogether.
Though the move to leave the oft-criticized group had been telegraphed for months, diplomats and rights advocates told VICE News that pulling the plug during such a controversial week risks sending the world a dangerous message: When it comes to human rights, Washington may be sabotaging its claim to global authority.
“It’s a very bad look,” said Michael Green, special assistant for national security affairs to former President George W. Bush. “There’s a legitimate debate over whether the Human Rights Council is effective, and there’s a legitimate argument that we should pull out. But if we do, then the U.S. needs to show it cares about human rights in other ways — and this administration hasn’t done that.”
On Tuesday, U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley announced the U.S. will leave the 47-member body, accusing the group of harboring anti-Israeli bias and welcoming members with some of the worst rights records on earth.
Haley blasted the Council as a “protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias,” and “a self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.”
She also accused Russia, China, Cuba, and Egypt of thwarting U.S. attempts at reform.
“Trump’s ‘America first’ policy is really ‘America alone.’”
But while Haley sought to contrast the Council’s hypocrisy with America’s steadfast commitment, the Trump administration has done little to demonstrate that human rights remain a touchstone of U.S. policy, several observers argued. Just days ago, for example, Trump heaped praise on North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, regarded by many as one of the most hardcore dictators in the world.
And the Human Rights Council pullout isn't the first time Trump has alarmed diplomats and rights advocates.
The businessman president has bucked U.S. policy norms all over the place, offering up praise for dictators, attacking the press, and ripping up international agreements on trade and climate change. On Tuesday, he threatened to cut off aid to countries sending “not their best” people as migrants to the U.S.
Taken in context, Tuesday’s announcement signals not just a lack of engagement on human rights but also a rejection of the international system the U.S. helped build after World War II, said Hady Amr, a former senior official in the State Department under former president Barack Obama.
“Trump’s ‘America first’ policy is really ‘America alone,’” Amr said.
And in the realm of human rights, Trump has been lumped in with some downright unsavory company.
In February, Amnesty International put the U.S. president on a list of threats to human rights, alongside autocratic leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
In January, Human Rights Watch slapped the Trump administration for a “sharp regression in government efforts to protect and promote a range of human rights” in its first year.
“This is not an administration that has really embraced human rights in any meaningful way.”
The report singled out “policy changes that have harmed refugees and immigrants, undermined police accountability for abuse, and rolled back women’s rights, including access to important health services.”
For Sarah Margon, HRW’s Washington director, Tuesday’s decision was just the latest example of an administration for which “American interests are always first,” and issues like human rights are firmly in the back seat.
“This is not an administration that has really embraced human rights in any meaningful way,” she said.
Amnesty International was more severe: “Once again President Trump is showing his complete disregard for the fundamental rights and freedoms the U.S. claims to uphold,” the group wrote in a statement Tuesday. “While the Human Rights Council is by no means perfect and its membership is frequently under scrutiny, it remains an important force for accountability and justice.”
Supporters of the decision, however, said the move was a long time coming.
“I’m sure we’re going to be slammed for it, but there are so many ways to defend this decision,” said David Rivkin, a lawyer who served in the administrations of former presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. “I’ve seen firsthand how the place functions. It’s an orgy of anti-Israeli and anti-American denunciation, and everything else is optional.”
A longstanding complaint, especially strong among U.S. Republicans, is the body’s “Agenda Item Seven,” the recurring motion to discuss — and inevitably criticize — Israel.
“No other nation has an entire agenda item dedicated to it at the Council,” the U.S. State Department said in March 2017. “The continued existence of this agenda item is among the largest threats to the credibility of the Council.”
What’s more, the Council features members like China, Congo, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt — places that have been roundly criticized by rights groups for their records.
In 2017, a report by the U.N. itself listed nine members of the Human Rights Council as countries said to retaliate against citizens who assist the U.N. with human rights work.
But HRW's Margon said that's only more reason for the U.S. to remain in the U.N. Human Rights Council and help fix the flaws.
“It’s not perfect. It needs to be reformed,” she said. “But how you get reform, when you walk away, is a big question.”
“I’m in favor of leaving,” said Elliot Abrams, who was deputy national security advisor under former president George W. Bush. “I think now is as good a time as any.”
But he urged the Trump administration to match leaving the Council with more robust rights initiatives in other areas.
“I think this administration does not do nearly enough on human rights,” Abrams said.
Cover image: U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley is seen at a United Nations Security Council meeting regarding the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and its escalations amid a worsening cholera epidemic and ongoing militarized conflict, at U.N. Headquarters in New York, NY, on July 12, 2017. (Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones)