The United States this week withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), claiming that the organization was hypocritical, ineffective and biased against Israel. While the move was expected, it is yet another assault on the institutions of international order. The council is not perfect, but it is a venue for discussion and sanction of human rights violations. It is weaker without the U.S. Japan could seize this opportunity to again show international leadership; it is unlikely to do so.
The UNHRC is the successor to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which was dismissed as toothless. Established in 2006, the UNHRC is comprised of 47 U.N. member states who meet three times a year in regular session and whenever one-third of member states can agree on a special session. Members are elected for a three-year term on a regional basis, and cannot serve for more than two consecutive terms. Japan is currently a member of the UNHRC and served three previous terms.
The U.S. has had an uncomfortable relationship with the UNHRC since it was formed. The U.S. voted against its establishment, and then refused to join, arguing that it could do more working from the outside, although U.S. President George W. Bush said he would provide financial support. It obtained observer status but gave that up after two years, charging that the council was biased against Israel and focused on it rather than genuine human rights concerns elsewhere, such as Zimbabwe, North Korea, Iran, Belarus and Cuba. Washington reversed position under President Barack Obama, reasoning that the U.S. could better influence the workings of the council as a member.
The UNHRC has been a constant source of complaint for U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley. She argues that countries join the council to insulate themselves from criticism, turning it into a “protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been even more critical, calling it an “exercise in shameless hypocrisy, with many of the world’s worst human rights abuses going ignored, and some of the world’s most serious offenders sitting on the council itself.” Rather than protecting human rights, he argued, the council “enables human rights abuses by absolving wrongdoers through silence.”
The accusations are not unfounded. Fourteen of the UNHRC’s 47 members are rated as “not free” by Freedom House. Since it was established, the council has passed more than 70 resolutions critical of Israel, 10 times as many as criticized Iran. In remarks to the council as it opened its session this week, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson charged that the focus on Israel is “disproportionate and damaging to the cause of peace.” In fact, Israel is a standing item on the agenda — Item 7 — requiring its discussion at every session. Chief among U.S. demands is the elimination of that agenda item.
Haley has called for reform — and threatening U.S. withdrawal in its absence — for over a year. While some governments tried to work with the U.S. to reform the body, opposition has been fierce. Haley charged that countries joined the council just to undermine reform. “When we made it clear we would strongly pursue council reform, these countries came out of the woodwork to oppose it.” Failure of the most recent efforts prompted the U.S. withdrawal, but Haley noted that “Should it become reformed, we would be happy to rejoin.”
The U.S. decision has been rightfully condemned as short-sighted. There is ample evidence that the U.S. can better influence deliberations from within the council: After it joined, resolutions critical of Israel dropped by 80 percent. More significantly, however, withdrawal suggests that Washington is unconcerned about human rights abuses, overly concerned about criticism of Israel and hostile to international institutions in general.
Withdrawal creates a void in international leadership on this issue. Japan has stepped up in other areas where the U.S. has stepped back, most notably on economic policy; it could do so here. The “free and open Indo-Pacific” touted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a values component — a rules-based order — and Japan could use that as a springboard for a more assertive human rights policy. Tokyo is unlikely to do so, however.
Japan has long subordinated human rights to more strategic concerns, fearful that adherence to a values-oriented foreign policy risked antagonizing potential partners. That logic has prevailed, for example, in relations with Myanmar and Iran. A long list of Japanese governments has argued that it is better to maintain relations and use that to press for change, although there is little evidence of Japan prioritizing human rights behind closed doors. There is no point in building goodwill if it is never used. Neither Japanese pragmatism nor American petulance will serve the cause of human rights.