Calling US leadership into question: international human rights institutions under pressure in the Trump Era

From the UN Human Rights Council to the International Criminal Court, international institutions and human rights bodies have been under pressure by the Trump Administration for the past year or so.

The Administration’s actions have had an adverse impact on US leadership and US interests in the international arena and in human rights leadership.

The US left the UN Human Rights Council in June 2018, as former US Ambassador to the United Nations in New York, Nikki R. Haley and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced, calling the Council a “hypocritical and self-serving organisation". This placed the United States in the company of Iran, North Korea and Eritrea as the only countries that have declined to participate in the UN Human Rights Council’s meetings and deliberations.

Also in June 2018, Nikki Haley criticized as “misleading and politically motivated” the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston for focusing on poverty in the US, although the Rapporteur carried out his work upon the invitation of the Trump Administration. Haley attacked the report as one to be diverting attention and resources from real human rights crises.

Earlier in December 2017, the US pulled out from the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, putting the US outside of the agreement reached by 192 UN Member States after a two-year negotiation period that established a common agenda for managing migration.

In March 2017, the US pulled out from a hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which covered the Trump Muslim travel ban. The US has invariably cooperated with the Commission over the past, championing its work to promote human rights also in South America.

In October 2017, the Trump Administration announced its decision to withdraw its membership from the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) by January 2019 by moving to a “permanent observer” status, effectively stepping away from the table.

In August 2018, Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton threatened that the United States would cut its funding for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, also known as the UN Human Rights Office. The US is one of the Office’s  largest donors and the U.N.’s largest single donor, providing about 22 percent of the UN budget.

Again in September 2018, Bolton made a major announcement on US policy towards the International Criminal Court (ICC) in a speech in which he threatened the staff of the International Criminal Court, calling for more bilateral agreements that undermine the Court,  for the freeze of assets of the ICC prosecutors and judges, and for prosecuting them in the US national system. The announcement was aggressive in an unparalleled way compared to the already established hostility towards the Court by the George W. Bush Administration.

The moves by the US over the past year signal weak leadership and an isolationist tendency which will not serve well the US over the long term.

US reputation and credibility especially in human rights leadership will suffer.

The US loses out in leadership and credibility by stepping away from the negotiating table and leaving a vacuum that would easily be filled by less than friendly authoritarian regimes looking to make gains while being hostile to human rights.

US leadership is waning as the US misses an opportunity to represent a strong voice for human rights.

The moves also isolate the US from its allies. The EU commented that the decision by the US to withdraw from the Human Rights Council "risks undermining the role of the US as a champion and supporter of democracy on the world stage," while former British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called the move "regrettable".

The US made several missteps which will lead to the missed opportunity to stand up for human rights. The US will be missing from the decision-making table.

Engagement, not disengagement, fixes the UN flaws cited as reasons for withdrawal.

Now an important voice will be silenced. The US will be largely missing from the table, thanks to the Trump Administration policies.

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