Under Donald Trump, U.S. Becomes First Country to Leave U.N. Human Rights Council by Choice

The optics weren’t ideal. As the Trump administration was being slammed for separating small children from their parents on the border with Mexico, the U.S. made the controversial decision to leave the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Nikki Haley, President Donald Trump’s U.N. ambassador, made the announcement Tuesday, calling the body a “cesspool of political bias.” The decision was ostensibly made in support of Israel, which the administration claims has been unfairly targeted by the council.

“Human rights abusers continue to serve on, and be elected to, the council," Haley said. "The world's most inhumane regimes continue to escape its scrutiny, and the council continues politicizing scapegoating of countries with positive human rights records in an attempt to distract from the abusers in its ranks."

To be sure, a number of countries accused of perpetrating human rights abuses, like Saudi Arabia and China, serve on the council. But experts say that Washington’s decision to leave will make it more difficult for the U.S. to advocate for human rights in the future.

“The ultimate beneficiary of this decision will be China, which has been flexing its muscles in the Human Rights Council recently and would love to use it as a platform to roll back Western positions on individual rights,” Richard Gowan, an expert on the U.N., told Newsweek. “Almost every time Trump attacks a multilateral body or agreement these days, it strengthens China's hand, as Beijing looks like the only alternative global leader available.”

Gowan continued, “The Trump administration has always seen the council as a potential target. The withdrawal is part of a much broader pattern of U.S. disengagement from U.N. talks and agreements on issues like migration and climate change under Trump. But the Human Rights Council is especially important symbolically because of its persistent criticisms of Israel. Pulling out is also one small way to undo the Obama administration's multilateral legacy, as Obama's team made a big point of joining the council in 2009 as a sign that the U.S. was returning to the international community after Bush.”

Meanwhile, even some Israeli officials weren’t entirely pleased by the decision, claiming Washington’s departure will make it more difficult to block anti-Israeli initiatives pushed through by members. And the move is also unprecedented, because the U.S. is the first country to leave the council without being forced out.

“Other states voted to suspend Libya in 2011, and Syria dropped a candidacy to join the council back then too. But the U.S. is the first to walk out of its own accord,” Gowan said.

Haley also blamed human rights groups for the decision to leave, saying they had thwarted U.S. attempts to improve the council.

“You should know that your efforts to block negotiations and thwart reform were a contributing factor in the U.S. decision to withdraw from the council,” Haley wrote in a letter to organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The council has 47 members that are elected for three-year terms. It was created in 2006 by the U.N. General Assembly.