The Curious Timing of the U.S. Withdrawal from U.N. Human Rights Council
On Tuesday, June 19, the Trump Administration announced its intended withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC). The announcement comes just a day after U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called the U.S. policy of separating parents and children that have crossed the border illegally, generally in search of asylum, “unconscionable.” In the last two months, at least 2,300 children have been separated from their families. This statement kicked off the 38th session of the HRC, during which the “human rights situation” in the U.S. is set to be an ongoing topic of conversation. In recent years, the U.S. has been criticized for human rights violations concerning racial discrimination, environmental injustice, and voter disenfranchisement.
The timing of the announcement is interesting, to say the least. For one, members of the 47-state Human Rights Council are elected by the General Assembly to serve three year terms. The United States’ term is up next year, 2019, and no country has ever voluntarily left mid-term. While the Trump Administration and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley have been talking for some time about leaving the Council, the timing is incredibly important. Two pressing human rights issues—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. family separation policy—are coming to a head for the U.S., and its withdrawal from the HRC looms.
U.S. Family Separation Policy
At first glance, the timing of the announcement seems to coincide directly with the condemnation of the U.S. family separation policy. The family separation policy is part of President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration—crossing the border between ports of entry is a federal misdemeanor, which means that parents get sent to a federal jail to await trial in immigration courts, a system that is already extremely backlogged and understaffed. Children cannot go with their parents to jail, so they are housed in detention centers or sent to foster homes. Many people choose to cross the border illegally, rather than attempt to claim asylum at a port of entry; many ports of entry do not have the resources to process asylum seekers and some human rights groups have accused border patrol of turning asylum seekers away, though it is technically legal to seek asylum at such a port.
Prior to this policy, a “catch and release” system was used whereby U.S. Border Patrol would first determine if a family had a credible claim to seek asylum. If they did, they would either be released or detained—as a family—for up to 20 days, awaiting a court date for their asylum hearing. Even within this system, 62% of asylum seekers were denied, including a significant number from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala also referred to as the “northern triangle,” one of the most violent areas in Central America.
Under this new system, rather than being given a chance to seek asylum, families are immediately charged with illegal entry and this is the point at which family separation occurs. The maximum sentence for this charge might be six months in prison but most judges tend to reduce the sentence to “time served.” Once convicted, parents are sent back to border patrol to theoretically be reunited with their children before deportation. Border patrol has no system in place to reunite parents and children, and this has and will have devastating consequences, including lasting psychological trauma in children taken from their parents.
President Trump and his administration initially embraced the intense pushback and criticism towards the policy, which appeared to be a way to continue to incite his base. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 55% of Republican voters approve of the family separation policy, where two thirds of Americans oppose it. By keeping one of Trump’s main issues—immigration—alive and inflamed, the White House appears to be hoping for a large turnout of Republican voters for the midterm elections. However, intense pushback on all sides led President Trump to sign an executive order on June 20, 2018 that stipulates families should be detained together. The order will face legal challenges because currently, due to the 1997 Flores settlement, children are not allowed to be detained for longer than 20 days. Meanwhile, Congress is attempting to pass comprehensive immigration reform. This story is currently evolving.
As a political move, withdrawing from the HRC toes the same line as continuing a policy that is a blatant violation of human rights; it makes good on a promise. In this case, the promise of distancing itself from and undermining international organizations it disagrees with, the U.N. in particular. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley explained the decision to withdraw from HRC: “We take this step because our commitment [to human rights] does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.” While it’s true that quite a few member states have their own significant human rights abuses (e.g. China, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela), the Council’s diversity also gives it added legitimacy when it does issue condemnations.
All hypocrisy aside, the most notable reason given by Haley is a long-standing one: that the HRC unfairly criticizes and brings attention to Israel and the Israel-Palestine conflict. The U.S. move is largely viewed as “defending Israel.” In fact, activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is one of ten perennial standing agenda items discussed.
The timing of this announcement is therefore interesting for a second reason: U.S. officials are currently in the Middle East speaking with leaders about their soon-to-be unveiled peace plan for the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Trump Administration claims that this peace plan will serve as the basis for ongoing talks and will not be a “take it or leave it” situation. Palestinian leadership has already made clear they will not accept any deal brokered by the U.S., since the U.S. recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and recently opened the new embassy there. At this point, the U.S. could not have placed itself in a worse negotiating position for cultivating the Palestinians’ trust, which makes hope for a lasting peace deal slim, at best. What is left, then, is a wholehearted commitment to “defending Israel”—the timing of the U.S. announcement to leave the HRC reads like an elaborate power play, an attempt to secure a stronger negotiating position before a plan is unveiled.
Announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Council the day after being called out for its own gross human rights violations and the day before major discussions begin in the Middle East is a two-fold political move. It reaffirms to Trump’s base that the President stands up to international bullies and hypocrites, attempting to delegitimize claims of human rights abuses, and that he’s tough on immigration, hoping that this will aid the turnout in Republican voters at the midterms. It also reaffirms and cements the U.S. commitment to Israel before, what could be, very important talks in the Middle East. If there is anything President Trump likes, it is appearing as a master deal maker.
Despite the seeming recklessness of the move to withdraw from the HRC, the move is inherently strategic and points to extensive forethought within the Administration, if not in the Oval Office itself. Democrats and other political opposition should be careful not to underestimate these kinds of strategies-disguised-as-impulsiveness moving into November.
Michaela K. Koke is a graduate of Vermont Law School and Lewis & Clark College's international affairs and environmental studies programs.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.