If the Trump presidency had more moral authority its withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council would be a much-needed wake-up call for the international body, whose headline compromises and hypocrisies have undermined its stated purpose and good work.

Eduardo Reyes

Eduardo Reyes

It is possible to identify a dynamic for imperfect UN bodies, treaties and declarations that make them worth defending.

It works like this - strong, high-minded principles are set out; they are endorsed by a long-enough list of countries, including some who only pay lip-service to those principles; where progress can be made it is, and it sets new tangible standards for the world; erring signatories’ lip service is then used as leverage to bring them slowly into line.

That’s progress – notably seen over the decades since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed by the General Assembly in 1948. The rights set out have increasingly acquired teeth, albeit unevenly, across the world – most notably in Europe where the principles have been translated into European and domestic law.

The Human Rights Council, created in 2006, should have been icing on the human rights cake. Instead, its structure and members’ decisions have given some countries with terrible rights records the prestigious honour of being in the driving seat – step forward Cuba, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia.

Politics, and the notion that ‘taking turns’ is a fair way to run things, has steered those elections to the body’s governing group.

Worldwide, supporters of human rights despair at such developments. 

The International Criminal Court, for all its faults, shows a better way – a hardening of the standards to which its founders aspired. The limited accountability it dishes out has standards and some teeth.

To be fair, some stories that put UNHRC in a poor light concerned things that never came to pass – after protests, Syria never made the ballot for election to the council and neither did Sudan. Within the UNHRC, there are good staff and worthy projects, though these are not helped by the shenanigans above.

It is right that the council periodically looks at countries like the UK. Past foreign secretaries have breezily asserted that we are not a country of concern, even as the UK co-operated with rendition and torture. As ever, the exceptional policies relating to Northern Ireland merit outside scrutiny, and are part of UNHRC’s work.

And the Israeli government’s human rights record certainly requires monitoring. But that is more difficult to do credibly for UNHRC while it gives a respectable platform to Hamas.

The US withdrawal comes as it pursues a policy of separating members of migrant families that is certainly in breach of universally accepted human rights principles. Diligent folk at UNHRC can be expected to take an interest at least through the periodic review it carries out of all UN member states (not just UNHRC members).

That, not Israel, may be the real reason why the US decided now as the time to sit outside UNHRC membership, joining states like Eritrea, Iran and its apparent new-best-friend-forever North Korea.

I doubt US withdrawal will do for UNHRC and I personally do not want it to – international bodies are created by consensus, and ending them does not happen when there is a lack of consensus.

But UNHRC needs to worry much more about its reputation and prestige. The US felt it could pull out with few consequences because UNHRC’s stock is low on both counts.