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U.S. Announces It Will Leave U.N.'s Human Rights Council


The Trump administration is reversing another decision made by the Obama administration and pulling out of the U.N.'s Human Rights Council. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, says the body is not worthy of its name.


NIKKI HALEY: For too long, the Human Rights Council has been a protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias.

CORNISH: She stood alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to announce the U.S. withdrawal. Joining us now from the State Department is NPR's Michele Kelemen. Hey there, Michele.


CORNISH: So tell us more about the case that the Secretary of State Pompeo made and Ambassador Haley. What did they actually say about why they wanted to leave the council?

KELEMEN: Well, a couple of big reasons - one concern is the focus on Israel. Let's take a listen to see what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said about that.


MIKE POMPEO: Since its creation, the council has adopted more resolutions condemning Israel than against the rest of the world combined.

KELEMEN: So that's what officials mean when they talk about the political bias of the Human Rights Council - this focus on Israel. The other concern that this administration has is the membership of this body. Countries with poor human rights records are on the council, and that includes, for instance, Venezuela. That's one reason that country didn't face scrutiny for its human rights record this year. Haley said she worked for the past year to try to force changes, to try to get things like Venezuela on the agenda, but she complains that she didn't get much help even from European partners.

CORNISH: Now, our membership in this is relatively new, right? I mean, why did the Obama administration join?

KELEMEN: Well, the Obama administration - you know, its idea was, yes, it's biased against Israel, but maybe we can push for reform from within. And it did have fewer resolutions during that time on Israel than it had previously. And it was also to make a break from the Bush administration, which didn't join the Human Rights Council. U.N. expert from Columbia University Richard Gowan says that it was a way for then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and for President Obama to kind of draw a line under the anti-U.N. period of the Bush administration. And he told me in a Skype call today that there were some successes.

RICHARD GOWAN: The U.S. and allies like Britain quite smartly used the council as a platform to highlight the human rights abuses of Gaddafi in Libya and, more recently, Assad in Syria. Obviously, the Human Rights Council has not affected the outcome of the Syrian war but at least kept a very detailed record of the atrocities being committed there.

KELEMEN: And, Audie, the same can be said of Iran. The council did create a special rapporteur on Iran who's been detailing the abuses there. So that's another thing that the U.S. really pushed for.

CORNISH: So is there concern that the council may roll back some of this with the U.S. pulling out?

KELEMEN: I did hear concerns about that. I talked to a guy named Hadi Ghaemi who runs the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. And he told me that the mandate for that special rapporteur was just renewed for a year, but it's not clear what happens next year when members have to vote again. Iran is on the Human Rights Council, and so, too, are other countries with poor human rights records. So there's a concern that without the U.S. kind of pushing the agenda, others fill the vacuum.

CORNISH: Is anyone questioning the timing of this announcement? It comes just a day after the U.N. high commissioner for human rights criticized the Trump administration's policy for separating children from people who enter the U.S. illegally.

KELEMEN: Yeah, that's right. I mean, critics of the Trump administration were quick to point out this fact. Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power said in a tweet today a government that rips children away from their parents has no room to posture like this on human rights. We did ask officials at the State Department about this very awkward timing of this decision, and they say, you know, this has been in the works for some time and not related to the criticism that's coming from the U.N. human rights chief.

CORNISH: OK, that's NPR's Michele Kelemen at the State Department. Michele, thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.