While announcing the long-expected move to pull out of the human rights council, Nikki Haley the American ambassador to the United Nations, justified its move by calling the council a “cesspool of political bias.” This would have sent shockwaves around the world a couple of years ago, but this is the age of Trump. Above all, it is the era of ‘America first’, or whatever that term actually stands for. As someone living in the developing world I fail to see when was America not first when it came to global diplomacy. Any country that pitches itself at the world stage always ensures that its own interests are met first, no matter how altruistic the cause. This principle does not arise from any theory on international relations but sheer pragmatism.
Although this withdrawal has surely to do with a malevolent attitude towards multilateral forums and a belief that the body is doomed— it also has multiple consequences that can potentially change the world order. This is the dawn of an era where the west is reactive and the east is proactive in terms of engagement at forums such as the UN. But this move cannot just be scrutinised by only looking at United States’ foreign policy. It also opens a string of questions that have long haunted the UN.
The UNHRC came into existence in 2006 and was a revamp of the earlier human rights commission, which was regularly mocked for being soft on enforcing human rights on regimes that abused them. The United States initially chose to not join the council citing its inability to stand firm on human rights violations committed by its own member states. The mistrust magnified by the UN sceptics such as John Bolton who were a part of the Bush administration (who now happens to be the national security advisor to Trump). The United States only agreed to join the forum under Obama, citing the importance of having a western power in the council to create internal pressure and initiate reforms within. Though even Obama was vocal about his frustrations regarding the failure of the council in taking any tangible action. Then why one must ask, has the United States been so sceptical about the capabilities of the council?
For a start, I must say that the United States has always had a point. And whether or not one may like Trump or not, he may have a valid justification for this particular move. To understand the reasons behind this pullout, we first need to understand the dilemma faced by the long criticised human rights council. There are 47 members states in total that have a tenure of 3 years, which can be extended to two terms. The first problem, which many critics point out has debilitated the functioning of the council is its very structure. The member states reflect the UN’s five regional groups, out of which the Asian and African blocs constitute a majority. These two regional groups also have concentrations of human rights abusing states that always end up on the council. The likes of Saudi Arabia, China, Iraq etc. have ironically served in the human rights council. This is also reflective of the problem that the UN in general faces. The organisation was created to promote western liberal principles and initially it had 51 founding member states, which were led by western democracies. At the same time to create a truly representative body, it had to include other members states, which may or may not have shared the same ideals. This paradox of representation has contributed to the UN’s inability to take decisive measures against some of these human rights abusers that are its members.
Then there is the issue about Israel being the victim of the council. Israel is the only nation to be on a permanent item on the human rights councils agenda and has by far received its most condemnations. This may not sound outrageous after the recent events in the Gaza strip where multiple peaceful protesters were shot dead. It is, however, in all fairness and prudence to point out that there are other countries where human rights are always under threat. And these do not come up as consistently on the agenda of the UNHCR as they should.
However, the pull-out seems to do more damage in the long run and have little or no impact on the functioning of the UNHCR. The United States as a precedent used its dominant status to get things done within or outside the UN. This ‘soft power’ or the ability to engage outside the scope of conventional diplomacy was a consequence of its global reputation. It is this reputation that has been affected the most and has scared many of its traditional allies. But unlike the last two decades, the void that the United States is creating will not last long. China will benefit most out of the recent blackouts by the United States and will aim to realise its dream of becoming a world superpower. It has already made its intentions clear by pushing its weight in Asia through the One Belt One Road initiative. This is a worrying prospect for any supporter of democracy, as an authoritarian regime should not fill the shoes of an outgoing power at the world stage.
The UN may not be the perfect institution and has undoubtedly had its share of criticisms. Despite which, it has also been a hugely successful forum for international cooperation since the end of the Second World War. As compared to its predecessor, the League of Nations, it has managed to hold off disagreements and yet remain a functioning body for almost seventy years. This is a considerable achievement by any standards.
This is not the first such withdrawal from any international body by the Trump administration. It had earlier backed out of the UNESCO and later from the Paris Agreement, which attracted criticism from almost all its allies. This is a worrying transformation in the American attitude towards global engagement—which shuns multilateralism and instead promotes internal nationalism. In the end, even the unthinkable question incites curiosity, will the United States decide to back out of the UN altogether? This seems like a far-fetched idea but Trump is breaking all norms, and it seems that he is enjoying it.