UNHRC America vs. United Nations – RSTV: The Big Picture


Anchor: Frank Rausan Pereira
Speakers: Shashank, Former Foreign Secretary, K.P. Nayar, Strategic Analyst, Dilip Sinha, Former Vice President, United Nations Human Rights Council, Prof. Harsh V. Pant, Head, Strategic Studies, Observer Research Foundation

Importance of this Episode:

  • UN chief Antonio Guterres on Wednesday defended the UN Human Rights Council and said he would have “much preferred” for the US to remain in the world body, hours after America withdrew from it, citing alleged bias. The decision to pull the US out of the UN Human Rights Council was announced by US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley who also criticised the council for a “disproportionate focus and unending hostility towards Israel”.
  • The US has long criticised the UN Human Rights Council for its standing agenda item 7 on the rights violations by all parties in the Palestinian territories. This item was included when the council’s agenda was drawn up at the conclusion of its initial year in the year 2007. This was at a time when the US had decided not to participate in the council. Nikki Haley claimed that UN Rights abusers continue to serve on and be elected to the council.
  • This is not the first such body the US has walked out of in recent times. On this edition of the Big Picture, we analyse the ramifications of President Trump’s recent actions.

Analysis by the Experts:

  • Dilip Sinha, Former Vice President, United Nations Human Rights Council helped put into perspective the role of the UNHRC.
  • He observed that the UNHRC is the main human rights body of the United Nations. This body is elected by the UN General Assembly. It has 47 members and a member can seek re-election only once, thus it can have consecutive terms and then it would have to take a break of at least one year. India is not currently a member of the UNHRC.
  • The UNHRC replaced in 2006 the earlier body called the Commission on Human Rights, which had worked in the UN since 1946 and the Commission on Human Rights was scrapped, mainly at the insistence of the US, because they felt that the body had become very politicized; and thus the idea of the UNHRC was to make the body less intrusive, less country-specific, and help making it more promotional and general.
  • To what extent the UNHRC has been able to serve this purpose or not still has to be seen. As far as the US is concerned, we need to remember that the US did not join the UNHRC in 2006 when it was setup. The US joined the UNHRC only in 2009 when President Obama came into office.
  • In 2006, John Bolton, the current National Security Advisor was still a prominent figure in the US policy setup and he was strongly opposed to the idea of the UNHRC. Thus, the recent pulling out of the US from the UNHRC should be seen in line with the policy of John Bolton.
  • The standing agenda item 7 on Palestine which targets Israel is also an important point to consider. This is because the US has always been opposed to this agenda item being a permanent fixture of the UNHRC. India is also opposed to this concept of country-specific resolutions but we have accepted the Palestinian agenda item.

What Powers does the Council possess? What action can it take against those who violate human rights?

  • K.P. Nayar, Strategic Analyst weighed in with his points here. He mentioned that in reality the organization has no teeth. They have passed resolutions, but these resolutions can be ignored with impunity. This is what Israel has apparently done. It is suggested that what Trump has done is in a way hypocritical as on the one hand, they walk out of the organization and then, on the other hand, they bring out various reports on human rights. For example, the US State Department brings out its reports. There is a commission called the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), but the reports given by these various commissions have seldom been seriously followed.
  • The United States has one of the biggest prison populations in the world, and it has a lot to answer for human rights. Raising sanctions against a particular country depends on how vulnerable a recipient country is- for example, when we look at Cuba, raising sanctions on Cuba for alleged human rights violations may not prove to be a potent instrument as Cuba has been under various sanctions for many years.

How relevant is the UNHRC today?

  • Shashank, Former Foreign Secretary, weighed in with his arguments. He mentioned that human rights is akin to the idea of mother’s milk. Thus, everyone wants to have human rights protected and preserved and this was one of the original ideas of the founders of the United Nations- that not only should the United Nations deal with the military issues, but it should also deal with the respect for human rights. What has happened in the case of the United States is that the Americans were themselves against the original body of human rights. What is required is that we need to have greater respect for human rights- but the moot question is how we accept the idea of human rights under our own domestic constitutional provisions and the political debates at home.
  • In the case of Palestine, we have seen that perhaps the Palestinian issue was going towards a resolution, by an understanding among all the countries, through a two-state formulation, but then internally we found that the Palestinian’s had a division of opinion and on the other hand, the American’s decided to move their embassy to Jerusalem which to divided the Europeans and the Americans. The US administration now is very keen to see that the idea of “America First” is not only looked upon as a declaratory principle, but is implemented in each and every sphere.

The UNHRC has been strongly criticised for allowing countries with a poor human rights record to be a part of it. What is the locus-standi of the UNHRC?

  • In response to this question, Prof. Harsh V. Pant, Head, Strategic Studies, Observer Research Foundation weighed in with his arguments. He opined that all international organizations and all international bodies, ultimately and intrinsically are political in nature. Thus, you have the political composition around them that gets reflected in what these bodies either tend to do or tend not to do.
  • The UNSC for all the lofty ideals that it supports is ultimately a political body, where its members take decisions based on what their national interests’ demands. Thus, to take out UN Human Rights Council as some kind of an exemplar would be something wrong to do while analysing the situation. You have countries within the UNHRC where the officials take certain positions based on very narrow political prisms and narrow national domains which they come from.
  • It is this that often gets reflected in the reports that are often propounded. Surprisingly, the nations that are more open than others become more vulnerable as well, as they allow their vulnerabilities to be debated. However, nations that are more authoritarian in nature such as Russia, China, etc. don’t succumb to any such vulnerability, as their questions are not debated and are not out on the table as they don’t allow such conversations to happen in the first place.
  • The question to be asked here is that whether or not, by walking out of this body altogether, America leaves it open for other countries which are even less democratic than America is; or for that matter who cares even less about human rights than what America does?

What impact would the US pulling out of the council have on the UNHRC?    

  • Dilip Sinha, Former Vice President, United Nations Human Rights Council weighed in with his arguments here. He mentioned the need to distinguish between two organisations- i.e. the UNHRC itself which has 47 UN member countries and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) which is headed by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. Now, the High Commissioner is appointed by the Secretary-General, and not by the UNHRC, and the High Commissioner appoints his own office. The office is an autonomous office- it does not report into the UNHRC although it services the UNHRC.
  • One of the major improvements on the UNHRC has been the Universal Periodic Review which takes place every four years for each country, and surprisingly, all the countries, even Israel have gone through 2 cycles of the UPR, which India and the US have also gone through. This is a peer review where the country sends a delegation, it submits a report and then the other countries comment upon it. Some of the points made by various countries are consistent with the points which some of the Indian human rights bodies make- thus one must treat these reports with a certain degree of respect.
  • The problem with the US is that the US has a dual position on this. On one hand, it is the chief financier of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Around 60% of the funding of this office comes from non-budgetary funds of the UN- it comes from the donations from the member-states, and the U.S. is the largest donor to that.
  • Thus, on one hand, it is the largest donor to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and on the other hand, it is withdrawing from the UNHRC, because in the latter, it gets outnumbered by various other countries that are members and do not have a very good human rights record. But what the US does not seem to appreciate is the larger role that the UNHRC plays by making other countries aware of the fact that they have an international image; for example, most Arab nations prefer to present women delegates as their representatives to the UNHRC. Saudi Arabia has also done this in the past- it was because they realised the importance of putting up a positive face to the world. Human right, irrespective of what the UN says, is essentially an internal matter of each country and it is for the government of each country to protect the human rights of its people. The UNHRC can only play a promotional role in the idea of safeguarding human rights.

Why did the US pull out of the UNHRC? Did Trump’s family separation policy have anything to do with this?

  • K.P. Nayar, Strategic Analyst weighed in with his points here. He gave the example of John Bolton, the National Security Advisor of the USA who has always been against the UN. When Mr. Bolton was the Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, he famously said, “The Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference”.
  • Mr. Bolton is opposed to the idea of internationalism and multilateralism. Thus, he has obviously influenced Trump. Also, the USA has a history of pulling out of organizations- they pulled out of UNESCO once.
  • It is also true that the US is the largest contributor to the United Nations, but, until President Obama had cleared various dues, the US has been the biggest defaulter. This has an effect even on India, for example, our UN peacekeeping forces are often not paid salaries even for months.

Looking at the atrocities all across the world, the latest being in Yemen, and the catastrophic situation that is staring at us in the face there, is the world really concerned about human rights at the end of the day?

  • Shashank, Former Foreign Secretary, weighed in with his arguments. As far as the Americans are concerned, they have a clear-cut view of what they want to achieve in terms of the American policy in the Middle East. They are moving in that direction as well. They have made common cause with the Israeli’s, the Saudi Arabian’s, and some of their other allies there. Thus, Yemen has become the battleground at this time. The US feels that if it is not Syria, then Yemen, or both of them together and then Iran should be brought under tremendous pressure, and brought to their heels.
  • Also, whenever the Republicans have been in Government in the USA, they have said that the United Nations procedures are very ineffective, very inefficient and therefore, they should not pay so much of money. Thus, there are two parts a) the compulsory contribution which they have to pay to the main budget of the United Nations and b) Voluntary contribution
  • The US doesn’t pay the main budget of the UN often; and as far as the voluntary contributions are concerned, they either don’t pay or they pay after a great amount of delay and deliberation in the Congress. Thus, this is essentially what happens. The US agrees to pay, but later, they pull back and try to politicise the whole organization much more. It is believed that Trump is moving in a direction where he aims to put pressure on the United Nations bodies, and simultaneously on the members of the UN. Many officials in the UN as well realize that they are there in the first place because of no objections from the Americans- for example: Kofi Annan at one time had declared that the Americans were doing some illegal warfare in the Middle East- as a consequence to this; he was removed in virtually no time.
  • We also find that the present human rights commissioner is very close to the US, thus, perhaps he takes most of his briefs from the US government or the US officials. Thus, the US is very happy with him, but not too happy with the members of the UNHRC.
  • As far as India is concerned, we need to keep in mind that we respect the idea of human rights- as per the Constitutional requirements in India, there are various internal bodies that we have setup on human rights. We continue to do that, and that the same time when the Americans put undue pressure on us, we should tell them that there are UN-related obligations that we want to abide by to the extent possible.

What is President Donald Trump’s ultimate plan? Is it that he just wants to deliver on the poll promises that he has made or is he going to grow more and more protectionist as the days go by?

  • In response to this question, Prof. Harsh V. Pant, Head, Strategic Studies, Observer Research Foundation weighed in with his arguments. Donald Trump seems to be delivering on his poll promises one by one. There have always been two schools of thought in America about the United Nations, and conservatives have always been suspicious of the UN and also on any kind of international entanglement at large. This carries forward in some extreme way in the Trump administration where his argument of ‘America First’ takes precedence. It is clear and categorical that any organization that does not conform to American interests would either be dismantled or they would move out of such an organization. The consequences of a multilateral order are very complex as we know. We have been having this debate during the George W. Bush administration as well with the influence of John Bolton; the questions that were being asked at that time was whether or not America will renege on their commitments to the UN? Whether they would walk out of the UN? All these questions exemplify the underlying trends that we have been seeing in American foreign policy for a long time now; but what magnifies this is the context: a) The Trump administration b) The shifting global balance of power
  • Thus, if America is becoming more and more inward looking, what will other emerging powers do?
  • The trouble is that the other rising powers, especially China can be even more problematic on this front. Thus, when we are talking of human rights, China is not the place.
  • Thus, for many in the liberal space, who want to engage with America on this level, the questions going forward revolve on the kind of alternatives we have, and whether or not there is a space in America now for this kind of a conversation to take place.

Concluding Remarks

  • In conclusion, the UNHRC is not the first organization that the US has walked out of. They have walked out of the UNESCO, the Paris Climate Accord, President Donald Trump has severely criticized the WTO as well time and again.
  • US foreign policy has always swung between its primary motivation of isolationism, represented by the Monroe doctrine on one hand, and the engagement and domination of the world as represented by the Truman doctrine, which among other things, talks about combating communism. Donald Trump takes forward the policy of isolationism, and he has come at a point when China has taken undue advantage of the free trade system, by creating a huge surplus and disrupting the whole trading system.
  • Donald Trump wants to reduce America’s trade deficit, and then on Israel, we know that Trump is not willing to compromise. His support for Israel goes all the way to shifting the capital to Jerusalem and his walking out of the UNHRC, is because of the Israel fixation of the UNHRC. Now, Israel has a problem with human rights violations, but so do many other countries in the world.
  • Even Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the present High Commissioner (OHCHR) is from a country which ranks very low in the Human Rights Index. In his annual report at the farewell speech to the UNHRC, he mentioned a whole list of countries, including the US and India, but he didn’t mention Jordan, which is his own country, where there is very limited freedom. Thus, human rights is an issue where we have to move very gingerly, very carefully and it is not only important to promote human rights within our own country, but also globally through a promotional method, and the UNHRC is a good step in that direction.
  • In the wake of the decision made by the US to walk out of the UNHRC, ciriticisms are coming out strongly against them. The UN has its deficiencies and faults, but without the UN, things could be much worse.
  • The immediate ramifications of the US walking out will be two-fold a) would the continuing members of the UNHRC be able to fill up the gap of the money that will be lost by the moving away of the United States b) Would there be any changes in the priorities and the plans which were being fulfilled by the UNHRC? Thus, should they now reduce their workload and ensure that they become more efficient in their budgeting and in their financial matters? These are some of the questions that need answering.
  • At the end of the Cold War, the idea that liberal values would spread across the world was strongly believed and felt. But, we can see this disintegration almost piece by piece. The fact that it is coming from America itself shows you how fickle the idea of a single unifying world order can be. Therefore, the question that now arises is where is the alternative model? Where is the alternative world order going to come from? Do we have leaders, do we have states who can project alternative ideas?
  • Unfortunately, we don’t see the kind of cohesion in the west, we don’t see that kind of leadership in the East, thus the foreseeable future appears to be fraught with challenges. The Chinese know that the world order is moving in their direction. The way the Americans have moved out of the South Korean military exercises’, suggests that they want to cut their losses, move out of Asia, and see that they concentrate now on their main area that is settling their scores with the Iranians, Yemen and elsewhere.


Further Reading:
A note on the Monroe doctrine:

  • James Monroe was the President of the U.S. During his annual address to Congress, he proclaimed a new U.S. foreign policy initiative that came to be known as the “Monroe Doctrine.”
  • This doctrine was primarily the work of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. The Monroe Doctrine forbade European interference in the American hemisphere but also asserted U.S. neutrality in regard to future European conflicts.
  • The origins of this doctrine stem from attempts by several European powers to reassert their influence in the Americas in the early 1820s.


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