Washington: The Trump administration has withdrawn from the United Nations Human Rights Council, making good on a pledge to leave a body it accused of hypocrisy and criticised as biased against Israel.
"For too long, the Human Rights Council has been a protector of human rights abusers, and a cesspool of political bias," Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said on Tuesday at the State Department in Washington.
She said the decision was an affirmation of US respect for human rights, a commitment that "does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organisation that makes a mockery of human rights."
The 47-member council, created in 2006 and based in Geneva, began its latest session on Monday with a broadside against President Donald Trump's immigration policy by the UN's high commissioner for human rights. He called the policy of separating children from parents crossing the southern border illegally "unconscionable."
The Trump administration is under intense criticism from business groups, human rights organisations and lawmakers from both parties over the recently imposed policy.
While that timing was jarring, the US withdrawal had been in the works for some time. National Security Adviser John Bolton had also opposed the body's creation when he was US ambassador to the UN in 2006. Current Ambassador Haley warned a year ago that the US would pull out if the council didn't address what she saw as its bias toward Israel and the fact that many of its current members - they include China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt - have poor human rights records themselves.
Condemning the planned withdrawal from the UN group, Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the decision "sends a clear message that the Trump administration does not intend to lead the world when it comes to human rights".
The council also has been a forum for criticism of Trump's economic policies. In a report on the US due to be submitted to the Human Rights Council this week, Philip Alston, the UN's rapporteur on poverty, said the president's tax overhaul "overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy and worsened inequality".
The report says that while the US has long been the most unequal among developed nations, it's getting worse under Trump. "The policies pursued over the past year seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest," it said.
Even some critics of the human rights council have called for continuing to push for a revamping of the body rather than quitting it.
On the opening day of the council's current session, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson criticised the body's perennial agenda item dedicated to Israel and the Palestinian territories, calling it "damaging to the cause of peace." Nonetheless, he said the UK wasn't "blind to the value of this council".
Israel is the only country in the world whose rights record comes up for discussion at every council session, under "Item 7" on the agenda.
The council is scheduled to discuss Israel and the Palestinian territories on July 2, according to its agenda.
"The Trump administration's withdrawal is a sad reflection of its one-dimensional human rights policy - defending Israeli abuses from criticism takes precedence above all else," Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth said in a statement.
The move extends a broader Trump administration pattern of stepping back from international agreements and forums under the president's "America First" policy.
Although numerous officials have said repeatedly that "America First does not mean America Alone," the administration has retreated from multiple multilateral accords and consensuses since it took office.
Since January 2017, it has announced its withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, left the UN educational and cultural organisation and pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. Other contentious moves have included slapping tariffs on steel and aluminum against key trading partners, recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital and moving the US Embassy to the holy city from Tel Aviv.
Haley has been the driving force behind withdrawing from the human rights body, which is unprecedented in the 12-year history of the council. No country has ever dropped out voluntarily. Libya was kicked out seven years ago.
The move could reinforce the perception that the Trump administration is seeking to advance Israel's agenda on the world stage, just as it prepares to unveil its long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan despite Palestinian outrage over the embassy relocation. Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, is visiting the Middle East this week as the White House works to lay the groundwork for unveiling the plan.
Last year, Haley warned the Geneva-based council that the US would withdraw if it did not end its systematic scrutiny of Israel and alleged Israeli rights abuses against Palestinians.
Since last year, Haley's office has also pushed the council and its chief not to publish a UN database of companies operating in West Bank settlements, a so-called blacklist that Israel is concerned could drive companies away and cast a further pall over its presence in the Palestinian-claimed West Bank.
A full pullout by the US leaves the council without one of its traditional defenders of human rights. In recent months, the United States has participated in attempts to pinpoint rights violations in places like South Sudan, Congo and Cambodia.
A key question will be where the US pullout leaves Israel.
The United States has opted to stay out of the Human Rights Council before: The administration of President George W. Bush decided against seeking membership when the council was created in 2006. The US joined the body only in 2009 under President Barack Obama.
A pullout could be largely symbolic: The United States' current term on the council ends next year, when it could have reverted to the observer status held by other countries that are not members, allowing it to speak out on rights abuses, but not to vote.