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Former UN lawyer Alfred de Zayas says Trump’s withdrawal “is a symbolic act; it is like a slap on the face of the United Nations,” and US Ambassador Nikki Haley is “accusing the Human Rights Council of the hypocrisy that the United States practices on a daily basis.”
BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News. I’m Ben Norton.
The Trump administration has withdrawn the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Trump administration has repeatedly criticized the United Nations, and has substantially cut U.S. funding for different parts of the international body. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley accused the Human Rights Council of hypocrisy, and she specifically claimed that it has a supposed, quote, bias against Israel.
Joining us to discuss this is someone who knows the U.N. very well. Alfred de Zayas is a professor of international law and the author of nine books. He is also a retired senior lawyer with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and until a few weeks ago he was actually the U.N. independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order. Thanks for joining us, Alfred.
ALFRED DE ZAYAS: Pleasure to be with you.
BEN NORTON: So can you talk about this decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from the Human Rights Council? What do you think it signifies?
ALFRED DE ZAYAS: Well, it was expected by everybody. I mean, we’ve been talking about that even years ago, since Trump came to power. Now, don’t overestimate it. Don’t consider it a catastrophe. Russia is not a member of the Human Rights Council today, and the council functions very well without Russia, and it will function very well without the United States. You may remember, in the years of George W. Bush, the U.S. didn’t even want to postulate for membership, and in the first three years of the Council the U.S. was not a member.
The U.S. came in with Barack Obama in 2009, came in triumphantly, and there were enormous expectations for the U.S. But of course, alas, the human rights record of the United States is not very good. And also the moral authority of the United States has suffered significantly. But this, as I say, is a symbolic act. It is like a slap on the face of the United Nations, and in particular of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. On the other hand, it doesn’t have great consequences. I mean, really serious is pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. Really serious is pulling out of the Paris climate accords. But this is just the absence of the United States, which, by the way, has had a rather destructive role in the Human Rights Council.
The U.S. has led the opposition to any progressive resolution in the council when the Declaration on the human right to peace was being negotiated. There was a fine draft prepared by the Advisory Committee. Well, it was dismantled. And what was adopted two years ago, thanks to the sabotage done by the United States and its friends, is less than what we had in 1984 with Resolution 39 Bar 11.
Unfortunately, the issue of Item 7, which is Palestine and Israel, has been overplayed here. It’s obvious that the Arab States and it’s obvious that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation wanted Item 7. And they fought for it when the negotiations for the creation of the council were going on in 2005-2006. So it’s not surprising that there is an item. But there is a prehistory. The prehistory is the very genuine responsibility of the international community, and in particular of the United Nations, which in the year 1947 in Resolution 181 on the partition of Palestine, and then Resolution 194 on the right to return of the Palestinian refugees. You must remember that there was ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1946, ’47, ’48.
BEN NORTON: This is known as the Nakba, in Arabic.
ALFRED DE ZAYAS: Exactly. Exactly. So the United Nations has failed to get its act together on a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.
BEN NORTON: Let’s talk more about this really quickly, specifically because U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley singled out Israel as an example of the supposed bias of the Human Rights Council. She claimed that supposedly the council focuses more on Israel than in other countries. Although if you look at the different speeches given by members of the of the Human Rights Council, if you look at the bulletins that they publish, in fact there are word clouds of the frequency of countries mentioned. And you will see that when it comes to the Security Council, the Human Rights Council, and the General Assembly, Israel-Palestine is in fact not one of the top five topics. There is significantly more discussion of Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, Russia. And of course Israel-Palestine is mentioned, but the idea that it singled out for criticism seems to be totally false.
ALFRED DE ZAYAS: I consider it also to be false. And I am concerned with this complex of fake news, fake history, fake law, fake diplomacy, and fake democracy. Every appeal of the United States to democracy and the attempted creation of the United Nations democratic, or democracy caucus, and all of these things, this is basically empty rhetoric. Or even worse, it is Orwellian corruption of language. This is newspeak. And I’m afraid what we hear from Nikki Haley confirms my worst fears about this system of disinformation that comes out not only out of a fictitious 1984 dystopia, but it’s coming out of Washington.
And it is regrettable, because I’m a great believer in Eleanor Roosevelt. I’m a great believer in the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt, of the spirituality of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which did not limit itself to civil and political rights, but very much endorsed and advanced economic, social, and cultural rights, which in the activity of the U.S. delegations in the Human Rights Council have been not only not advanced and not supported, but, you know, fought with determination. And so I think that a breather without the United States in the council will be rather healthy. And I would like to see who is going to inherit the, shall we say, leadership. You can say the U.S. had a leadership in the council. I suppose that the main beneficiary of the U.S. pulling out may very well be China.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, and let’s talk more about this. China is a member of the Human Rights Council. China, when it comes to the United Nations, has frequently taken a step back and played a more neutral role, whereas you mentioned the U.S. has frequently, especially in the Security Council, vetoed resolutions. The U.S. and Russia topped the charts for vetoing. China has always played a more diplomatic role. But also I’m curious what you think about China’s potential role upcoming, not just in the Human Rights Council, but as the U.S. has withdrawn in general from different United Nations bodies, I’m wondering what you think China’s role will be.
And then in addition to that, to push back a little bit, the Human Rights Council has also been criticized because it still has Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as members. And these are, of course, brutal theocratic absolute monarchies that are implicated in war crimes in Yemen, in torture. So can you respond to those two points? China, and then also the fact that Saudi Arabia is still on the Human Rights Council.
ALFRED DE ZAYAS: As far as China is concerned, I mean, it’s 1.3 billion human beings. Obviously it must have a strong voice in the Security Council, and in the General Assembly, and also in the Human Rights Council. Obviously they have problems. Saudi Arabia has problems. Russia has problems. Venezuela has problems. Yemen has problems. Bahrain has problems. India has problems.
The thing is, if we understand that the United Nations Charter, based on a philosophy of multilateralism, based on a philosophy of mediation, then we want to bring everybody on board. As a matter of fact, I would not have been against the idea of a universal human rights council, same as a general assembly, with 193 members and observer states like Palestine, and actually representing the entire world. I mean, I don’t think that membership in the council should be an award. I don’t think membership in the council is, shall we say, recognition of its wonderful record. If it was recognition of its wonderful human rights record, the United States could not be a member. I mean, the United States has a horrendous record of xenophobia. It has the whole legacy of slavery, and segregation, and violence. I mean, the United States is, indeed, a very violent country. By the way, I am an American citizen, and I vote in the American elections. And I am very unhappy with the development that the United States has taken. But again, there are tremendous number of Americans who think like I do.
BEN NORTON: Let’s talk about this specifically. The U.S. has repeatedly violated U.N. resolutions, specifically when it came to Iraq. The U.S. did not get United Nations approval to invade Iraq. And then Kofi Annan, who is the head of the U.N., he said that that was illegal under international law. He said it very explicitly. We have of course seen that in 2011, when the U.S. and NATO got approval from the Security Council, they, they vastly over, overwent to that authority and toppled the government of Moammar Gaddhafi and killed him. The country is today in complete disaster. We saw in Syria, I interviewed you several months ago, and you said that there is no United Nations authority for the U.S., and Turkey, and Saudi Arabia to intervene in Syria.
So we only have a minute or two left here, but I’m wondering if you could comment. You said this is largely a symbolic action that the U.S. is withdrawing from the Human Rights Council, but given the U.S. record of military aggression that has no other parallel on the planet, no other country has carried out so many illegal wars, do you think this is-. There’s also the possibility that with hawkish members of the Trump administration like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo that this is also not just a symbolic action, but a way of trying to prevent the U.N. from having any kind of scrutiny over U.S. human rights violations abroad?
ALFRED DE ZAYAS: Well, certainly that is one of the reasons. The Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty Philip Alston has just presented a wonderful, very thorough report on poverty in the United States. And he also presented excellent reports on the soldiers of Washington, that I would like to call the soldiers of the Washington Consensus, the World Bank and the IMF. The United States does not like to be criticized. And the United States does not accept the jurisdiction of the Human Rights Committee, for instance, under the Optional Protocol doesn’t recognize the jurisdiction of the individual complaints procedures of the Committee Against Torture, et cetera, et cetera. Doesn’t recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.
So the United States acts like its Thucydides. You remember the great debate of the Athenians with the Malians, where it was very clearly said the strong do what they want, and the weak must suffer what they must. And that is basically might makes right, and the United States functions according to that philosophy. And presumably it will continue functioning according to that philosophy for years to come. On the other hand, the United States also doesn’t want to have the apocalypse. Therefore I do not see that the United States is going to bomb Iran tomorrow, or bomb any other country with nuclear weapons, because you know that we are also vulnerable.
On the other hand, don’t overestimate this one symbolic act. It is a petulant act. It is a form of, do you want, blackmail. It’s a diplomatic blackmail, saying OK, I take my marbles and I go home. I’m not going to participate in any of these debates anymore. And then it’s the pot calling the kettle black. It is Nikki Haley accusing the Human Rights Council of the hypocrisy that the United States practices on a daily basis. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the only country that is hypocritical, because Saudi Arabia is hypocritical, and so is Russia, and so is China, and so is France, and so is Germany.
So everybody is playing a game of rhetoric, and what has been lost in translation is what I said before: the spirituality of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the conviction that what we’re trying to achieve is a realization of human dignity. A realization of the right to be you, and my right to be me, and to be left alone and to be left in peace. The human right to peace is so central, and no country has done more to oppose that movement. That movement of pacifists of hundreds and hundreds of non-governmental organizations, civil society the world over, than the United States. It was the United States that brought that declaration on the right to peace down, so that, as I said, what was adopted two years ago, and nothing is about the same.
BEN NORTON: Well, on that note, that’s a good note to end our conversation. Unfortunately, we’ll have to conclude. We were joined here by Alfred de Zayas. Alfred is a professor of international law, and he was also a retired senior lawyer at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Until a few weeks ago he was the U.N. independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order. Thanks so much for joining us, Alfred.
ALFRED DE ZAYAS: Pleasure.
BEN NORTON: Reporting for The Real News, I’m Ben Norton.