Exiting the World Stage: The Implications of US Withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council

The implications of US Withdrawal from the Human Rights Council

Screen Shot 2018-06-29 at 7.51.32 PM.png

The US has made yet another move against a multilateral approach to global affairs. On Wednesday, June 20th, Nikki Haley US Ambassador to the UN announced the withdrawal of the US from the Human Rights Council (HRC) due to its inefficiency and bias. This decision has severe symbolic and practical effects.

Haley claims that the Trump administration had been considering this move since 2016 but has worked for the past 17 months towards institutional reform, demanding essential changes intended to mitigate the protection of abuse and political bias. However, such demands were not
met and other likeminded countries on the council were unwilling to take a stand against the HRC.

The Trump administration argues that US withdrawal is not a threat to human rights, rather it’s an attempt to strengthen the promotion and protection of human rights around the world. Critics of this decision argue that while the HRC is flawed, withdrawing from it is not an effective solution. Rosa Freedman, professor at the University of Reading, claims that reform was bound to fail as the US tried passing resolutions without any cosponsors or support from other member states. Mohammed Cherkaoui, professor at George Mason University, suggests that the US had been looking for an excuse to withdraw. Haley condemned the lack of action taken regarding Venezuelan human rights abuses, yet the US never called for a special session on Venezuela even when they had the chance.

In 2017, the HRC membership election sparked controversy. Member states, including the US, condemned the election of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to the council. Despite great opposition, the election of African states to the council is not competitive, so a spot for the
DRC was practically guaranteed. The inclusion of states which are known for violating human rights on the council causes concern among many members of the HRC, and the US declared this primary reason for leaving the council. Another such reason is the council’s stance toward Israel, that the Trump administration perceives as a negative bias. Still, the US withdrawing from the HRC does not undermine the power of the institution. Since Trump’s election, the US has gradually backed out of agreements and decreased funding, signaling to the world that its withdrawal was imminent. During that time, other countries have picked up the slack to ensure
that the withdrawal of the US would have minimal negative effects on the institution as a whole.
However, without the US on the council it will be more difficult to hold countries like Russia, North Korea, and Syria accountable for human rights abuses.

On the surface, the ideas behind US withdrawal seem to be in favor of human rights. However, the US no longer has an official, binding declaration promising to protect human rights or enforcement mechanisms to hold it accountable on the world stage. The symbolic implications are bleak.

No institution is perfect; a multilateral push for reform is necessary for improving the system. In 2020, the HRC is due for organized institutional reform. Now that the US is no longer a member, they have no say in the changes that will take place in the next couple of years.



SARAH MILLER is a senior at Temple University studying Political Science. With a passion for social activism, she hopes to improve the political nature of communities and governments around the world. She believes it is our duty as human beings to use our voices to create positive change.

Screen Shot 2018-06-29 at 7.49.51 PM.png