The United States of America has left the United Nations Human Rights Council. This news came as a shock to some and as an eventuality to many. This latest decision is part of a broader foreign policy shift that is being witnessed under the Donald Trump administration in the White House. A greater disengagement by the United States when it comes to multilateral instruments.
The US leaving the Paris Agreement is perhaps what set it off. The US has also been imposing protective tariffs on goods from certain countries. A protectionist policy that goes against longstanding US views on free trade. What this also perhaps shows is that the US foreign policy now is subject to domestic political interests i.e., catering to a particular voter base, rather than being one that is about a broader engagement with the global community.
Why HRC still matters
The Human Rights Council may not seem like such a big deal. It’s an organ of the United Nations that is created by the General Assembly. It is not an organ that find place in the UN Charter. The Council has nations that aren’t really the best model when it concerns human rights. Some of the world’s worst offenders, such as Saudi Arabia, are members of the Council. The Council, in the past, has passed resolutions that are perhaps against the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But the Council is an important organ, as for some states, it presents the only forum where they are truly held to account for their actions. For example, the US veto prevents any Security Council action against Israel, so the Council ends up being the only forum to place soft pressure on Israel in order to remedy some of its domestic political decisions. Though this must also be considered with the fact that there is perhaps a strong anti-Israeli presentiment that exists within the Council.
Separating refugee children
Cover Image of Time and The New Yorker Magazine
The US has been in the news recently for its “zero tolerance” policy towards illegal immigration. Under these circumstances, many refugees are being placed in immigration detention camps and their children are being separated from them. This separation violates the rights of the child as well as violates the rights of refugees to have their cases heard and examined. It almost seems unbelievable that a country the world once the prime destination for international refugees because of its relatively lenient immigration policy and economic opportunities, is now shooing them away in some of the worst circumstances that exist.
However, it needs to be remembered that the US has historically had a racist policy when it comes to immigration. The Chinese exclusion policies and the policies towards the Japanese in America are classic examples of this. This could perhaps be one of the long overdue realignments.
Beginning of US retreat?
The world post the Cold War is now multi-polar rather than bipolar. There are nations allied with China now (such as Pakistan, that is well on its way to becoming a Chinese client state), nations like Afghanistan that are strategic partners with India. The Russian bloc though still wields considerable influence, however, that perhaps is no longer the case with the United States under Trump’s presidency. When the US chose to walk out on the Iran Nuclear Deal, the European Union (a Union that consists largely of NATO members) and the United Kingdom (with which the US has a “special relationship”) refused to walk out of the deal. This shows that there has been a general breakdown in US leadership when it concerns world affairs.
So the question now that ought to be asked is this, is the world better off without the United States engaging in multilateral forums and following what now appears to be a very isolationist foreign policy? The United States has, at least as far as human rights are concerned, been a force for good. It was the US foreign policy coupled with smart liberal rhetoric that managed to break the Iron Curtain and liberate Europe from the scourge of communism. The US intervention in the First World War and the intervention in the European and Far Eastern theatres of the Second World War are glorious examples of the US fighting the war against fascism. The US could have restricted itself to merely a retaliatory strike against the Japanese. But Roosevelt at the time was looking for any excuse to enter the war and take on Hirohito and Hitler. Many brave Americans gave up their lives in the World Wars fighting for freedom and many more gave their lives to fight against communism in Korea and Vietnam. However, during the course of the later of the two major fights, the US engaged in war crimes such as the use of napalm. Presently, with the “war on terror”, we are seeing the United States justify the use of torture as “enhanced interrogation” and supporting mass surveillance on its citizens.
End of American exceptionalism
Perhaps the time has come when “American Exceptionalism” is not longer the defensive shield under which the US can hide. The recent foreign policy decisions by President Trump and his administration, no longer show the United States as being the beacon on a hill. They unfortunately show that the US is the headlight of a border patrol car, staring down a poor refugee with the view of sending her back to danger and separating a poor, conflict-battered mother from her children.
The world is not poorer for the US leaving the Human Rights Council, a decision, given the conduct of the Council, may be justified in isolation. But as a part of broader foreign policy though, the world is poorer having an isolationist United States. The United States, after all, is perhaps the only country in the world that still sees itself as a global power. It intervenes to protect children from chemical weapons in Syria and also intervenes to prevent abuses in other parts of the world.
If the US doesn’t intervene, the question the world must ask itself now is — who else will? Will the Syrians be left to fend for themselves against Assad? Will the Venezuelans continue to spiral into the depths of poverty under a dictatorial regime? Who will now call out China in its abuses on its citizens, or who will now bravely point out that religious freedom is under threat in India?
Unfortunately, with the US walking out on its moral obligations towards the world, obligations that the US has because it is the most powerful democracy that ever existed in the history of the world, the world is poorer as it no longer has a moral compass. We may now live in a multi-polar world, but the US just decided its pointing its compass right at itself and the rest of the world can keep spinning around in circles. The country of Eleanor Roosevelt, that helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is now the country that no longer cares. The world is incredibly poorer under Donald Trump.