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US quits UN Human Rights council: What message does it send to the world?

The United States has quit the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), saying the body is a "cesspool of political bias."

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James Griffiths (CNN)
(CNN) — The United States has quit the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), saying the body is a "cesspool of political bias."

US ambassador Nikki Haley announced the move Tuesday, which followed criticism by the UNHRC of Israel's shooting of unarmed protesters and the separation of children from their parents at the US-Mexico border.

While US officials have tried to frame the move as pro-human rights, Washington's withdrawal is likely to renew criticism that the Trump administration places less value on human rights than its predecessors, as exemplified by Trump's dealings with alleged human rights abusers like North Korean leader Kim Jong Un or Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, and the recent outcry of the treatment of immigrants along its southern border.

Why is the US leaving?

Both Haley and Trump have previously sparred with the wider UN over criticism of the US and Israel, with Haley claiming the international community pays outsized attention to Washington's actions while ignoring the "reprehensible human rights records of several members of its own Human Rights Council."

That comment was in response to UN criticism of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy, which Haley said was the "sovereign" right of the US to pursue.

In a statement, US Vice President Mike Pence said that in exiting the UN body Washington "took a stand against some of the world's worst human rights violators," claiming the council had made "a mockery" of its original mission in its criticism of the US and Israel.

However, both the Trump White House and previous US administrations have been open to dealing economically and otherwise with human rights abusers such as Saudi Arabia, China and Egypt.

What is the UN Human Rights Council?

Founded in March 2006, the council is responsible for "strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them."

It acts as something of a UN equivalent to international human rights groups, monitoring and investigating situations in countries and drawing international attention to them.

What does the UNHRC do?

The council holds three regular sessions per year, as well as an unlimited number of special sessions to address ongoing human rights violations and emergencies.

It can also nominate special rapporteurs for countries where human rights violations are taking place, or specific topics which need attention, such as disability rights or extrajudicial executions.

Special rapporteurs can be important in bringing international attention to issues, such as Yanghee Lee, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, who has used her role to highlight what she regards as a genocide being pursued against that country's minority Rohingya population.

The UNHRC works closely and somewhat overlaps with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which also promotes human rights and investigates abuses.

Why did the US quit the UNHRC?

According to UN Watch, a monitoring body with historical ties to pro-Israel groups, since its inception the UNHRC has criticized Israel more than any other country.

Washington has specifically highlighted the council's alleged anti-Israel "bias" as its reasons for leaving, as well as the body's recent criticism of the US.

Critics of the body often point to a permanent fixture on its agenda dedicated to the discussion of ongoing Israeli human rights violations on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

In 2006, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said he was "worried by (the council's) disproportionate focus on violations by Israel," saying it needed to give "the same attention to grave violations committed by other States as well."

US ambassador Haley also pointed to the membership of China, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Venezuela on the council as a reason for leaving it.

Other current members accused of widespread human rights abuses include Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Pakistan, all of whom are close US allies.

Who supports the US move?

Israel has long been a critic of the UNHRC, claiming it is unfairly singled out for criticism by the body.

In a statement Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Trump and Haley for their "courageous decision against the hypocrisy and the lies of the so-called UN Human Rights Council."

"For years, the UNHRC has proven to be a biased, hostile, anti-Israel organization that has betrayed its mission of protecting human rights," he said.

Who opposes it?

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the US withdrawal from the UNHRC was "regrettable" and said while he shared concerns about the body, London was "committed to working to strengthen the Council from within."

"Britain's support for the Human Rights Council remains steadfast," he said. "It is the best tool the international community has to address impunity in an imperfect world and to advance many of our international goals."

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop echoed Johnson's concerns, saying while she was also concerned by the council's "anti-Israel bias" she had urged the Trump administration to remain on the UNHRC and attempt to reform it from within.

Global human rights organizations were more strident in their criticism of Washington's move, with Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty saying it showed Trump's "complete disregard for the fundamental rights and freedoms the US claims to uphold."

"The US should urgently reverse this decision, which places it squarely on the wrong side of history. It is willfully choosing to undermine the human rights of all people everywhere, and their struggles for justice," he said.

In a statement, Human Rights Watch said "while it has its shortcomings -- including the participation of persistent rights violators such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela -- the council plays a vital role in addressing serious rights abuses around the world."

HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said the move showed "President Trump has decided that 'America First' means ignoring the suffering of civilians in Syria and ethnic minorities in Myanmar at the United Nations."

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