The U.N.’s Human Rights Council resumed work Wednesday after a U.S. pullout that one Western diplomat called a “Big Bang” for the Geneva body, as Russia blasted the move by the Trump administration and key allies expressed disappointment.
Critics and friends alike read the latest Trump move to snub yet another international institution as a sign that U.S. was jettisoning its reputation as a key defender of human rights and self-inflicting a blow to its international image.
They expressed support for the council, flaws and all, and vowed its work will go on.
“We have lost a member who has been at the forefront of liberty for generations,” Julian Braithwaite, Britain’s ambassador in Geneva, told the council. “While we agree with the U.S. on the need for reform, our support for this Human Rights Council remains steadfast.”
Russia blasted the U.S. decision, calling it “boorish” and saying Washington had “inflicted a powerful blow to its human rights reputation.” Russia’s U.N. mission said in a statement that the U.S. exit from the Council reflected Washington’s unilateralist approach to global affairs.
The U.S. withdrawal is unprecedented in the 12-year history of the 47-member council — no country has ever dropped out voluntarily. Libya was kicked out seven years ago.
The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, announced the pullout Tuesday, calling the body “a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.”
Haley said the U.S. had given the human rights body “opportunity after opportunity” to make changes. She criticized the council for “its chronic bias against Israel,” pointing out that it includes accused human rights abusers such as China, Cuba, Venezuela and Congo.
Defending the move, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said Wednesday “we don’t need advice by the U.N. or other international bodies on how to govern ourselves.”
Bolton told Fox News the decision was made by President Donald Trump weeks ago.
On Wednesday, the U.S. chairs sat empty as discussion turned to summary executions, freedom of expression, the rights of migrants and violence against women among other things.
The U.S. pullout leaves the council without one of its traditional defenders of human rights. Just two days ago, American representatives were still taking part by condemning issues like constraints on civil society in Egypt and curbs on a free press in Bahrain.
One Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said the U.S. was notably absent from an informal back room meeting in Belarus that it might normally have attended. He said the U.S. walkout could be a “big bang” to help prod reform at the council.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office called the U.S. decision “courageous,” saying it was “an unequivocal statement that enough is enough.”
But envoys from Australia, the European Union and China — a frequent target of U.S. criticism over Beijing’s rights record — used a break in the council’s regular work to express disappointment and regret. President Borut Pahor of Slovenia — the home country of U.S. first lady Melania Trump — said the American withdrawal was “bad news” for “everybody” who cares about human rights.
In Moscow, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova criticized what she described as Washington’s “boorish cynicism in stubbornly refusing to recognize its own human rights problems while trying to tailor the council to its political interests.”
The Chinese government also expressed regret over Washington’s decision. In Beijing, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the council is “an important platform” for countries to discuss human rights and that Beijing has been committed to supporting the group’s work.
But the Chinese government is often accused by Western countries of human rights violations and by rights groups of seeking to undermine the mechanisms of the U.N. human rights council. In March, a Chinese diplomat repeatedly interrupted a speech by a prominent Chinese dissident to block him from addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council, a failed attempt that bared China’s sensitivity on human rights.
The foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, dismissed the U.S. criticism that the council is problematic because it includes China and other authoritarian governments, saying that claim is “a total disregard of facts.”
The U.S. pullout extends a broader Trump administration pattern of stepping back from international agreements and forums under the president’s “America First” policy. Although numerous officials have said repeatedly that “America First does not mean America Alone,” the administration has retreated from multiple multilateral accords and consensuses since it took office.
Since January 2017, it has announced its withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, left the U.N. educational and cultural organization and pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. Other contentious moves have included slapping tariffs on steel and aluminum against key trading partners, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.