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Withdrawal from the Human Rights Council is an Untimely Backward Step

from American Ambassadors Live!

The withdrawal of the United States from the UN Human Rights Council is another abdication of US global leadership, following withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords and the Trans Pacific Partnership, among other “go it alone” initiatives of the Trump Administration. It is most unfortunate that this comes during the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by which the world’s nations unanimously adopted the aspirational values to which our nation’s founding documents aspire.

One stated reason for the withdrawal is that the 47-member Council includes some “bad actors” with poor human rights records like China, Venezuela, and Cuba; however, the US withdrawal empowers these countries to shape the global human rights agenda. Another “bad actor,” Russia, lost its election to the Council during the Obama Administration.

Another reason given for the withdrawal is the Council’s longstanding bias against Israel. It is true that Israel is the only country that has a stand-alone item on the Council’s mandate, No. 7, providing for special sessions. During the first three and a half years under Bush ‘44, when the United States had no ambassador, there were six special sessions on Israel. President Obama nominated Keith Harper, to serve as Ambassador to the Council, and during the following seven years of the US representation on the Council, there was only one special session on Israel.

According to some reports, a third reason for withdrawal may be a recent UN report criticizing the US record in addressing poverty. Why should the US be immune from criticism? With 25% of the world’s incarcerated, with proposed Muslim travel bans and policies that separate migrant children from their parents, why should the US not be held accountable for our adherence to the values that we have long espoused?

Importantly, historical evidence shows that US leadership is critical to an effective Human Rights Council. US leadership on the Council during the Obama Administration was able to redirect the agenda to serious human rights abuses in countries such as North Korea, Iran, Eritrea, Burundi, South Sudan, Belarus, Sri Lanka, and Syria.

Given this Administration’s downsizing bilateral human rights advocacy in its dealing with states like North Korea, China, and Saudi Arabia, it should be especially important to work multilaterally to advocate for human rights globally. US leadership at the Human Rights Council over the long term should be the most effective way to address widespread abuses. The Council is far from perfect, but, like most UN agencies, it works a lot better with strong US leadership.


Ambassador Bliss served as U.S. Ambassador to the International Civil Aviation Organizations and is the Immediate Past President of the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area. He is currently President and CEO of Hale & Northam LLC, a consulting and publishing firm, and Of Counsel in the Washington D.C. office of O'Melveny & Myers LLP, a law firm.

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