This post in the Bridging the Gap series comes from Peter Henne, Assistant Professor at the University of Vermont and a 2017 participant in BTG’s International Policy Summer Institute

Earlier this week, Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, announced the United States was leaving the UN’s Human Rights Council. Haley pointed to the body’s disproportionate focus on Israel and its inaction on human rights abusers. While some cheered this move due to problems with the council, others worried this would decrease America’s ability to fight human rights abuses. My research suggests both views are accurate. The UN Human Rights Council is flawed, and repressive states can use the body to deflect criticism of their record, particularly on religious repression. At the same time, the fact that they can do this suggests that the Council and its activities matter. America should try to help the council live up to its name, not write it off as a lost cause. 

The Trump Administration’s decision was not very surprising. The United States has been wary of the Human Rights Council since it was formed in 2006. The new body was supposed to be more representative of UN membership, and to hold members more accountable to human rights standards. Nevertheless, George W. Bush refused to participate because of concerns about the body’s effectiveness. Barack Obama, by contrast, joined the council, although some observers criticized this decision. And the Trump Administration has been critical of the council for its supposed anti-Israel bias.

There are definitely problems with the Rights Council. Since its formation, 25% of the country-specific resolutions the council has passed involve Israel; while some argue this has been because of legitimate human rights concerns, it does indicate a lack of attention to the rest of the world. Additionally, states often vote as blocs to stymie action on human rights abuses. Moreover, repressive states such as Libya, Russia, and China have been elected to the council. The council has also advanced norms that may undermine human rights. This includes a push to criminalize religious defamation, which many see as a restriction on free expression.

But the council does important work, and America could contribute to its efforts. The council has had some successes, such as defending LGBTQ rights and investigating war crimes in Syria. And there are indications America’s participation under Obama did some good. A Council of Foreign Relations report found that the council’s actions on human rights abuses increased once American joined it. For example, the United States worked patiently with the rest of the council to re-establish investigations into Iran’s human rights abuses in 2011. Similarly, the United States was instrumental in focusing the council’s attention on human rights abuses in Burundi in 2015. Neither of these positive steps would have occurred without what the CFR report calls America’s “tactful leadership” on the council. This has led some experts to argue that America is actually undermining protection of human rights by leaving the council.

So was Trump right to highlight the Human Rights Council’s negative impact on human rights, or wrong to pull America from an influential body? Both, actually.

In my forthcoming article in the Journal of Church and State (available here), I examine the impact of the Human Rights Council on religious repression. I find that states that are more active on the council tend to have higher levels of religious repression. I argue that this indicates states can use their activity on the Human Rights Council to deflect criticism of their record.

We can see a few examples of this. In 2009, China used its seat on the council to prevent a Christian NGO that had criticized China’s human rights record from becoming an official observer of the body. Likewise, when Iran faced criticism for its discrimination against Baha’is, it used the council as a platform to push back, pointing to supposed human rights abuses by its accusers.

Why did states’ misuse of the Human Rights Council seem to have a noticeable effect on religious freedom? Limits on religious freedom tend to be more subtle than widespread repression. States often present religious discrimination as seemingly neutral policies—such as registration requirements—that function to disadvantage minority groups. Additionally, religious freedom is more contested than political rights such as voting. As a result, states can point to cultural differences to counter claims of religious repression. Debates over religious defamation and blasphemy are one good example of this. Supporters of anti-blasphemy law argue they defend the religious freedom of communities and prevents unrest. Opponents, however, claim they infringe on free expression and provide opportunities for vigilante violence against minorities (as has occurred in Pakistan, for example).

My findings suggest supporters of the Human Rights Council may be overly optimistic. The council has not been effective in limiting its members’ restrictions on religious freedom. Religious freedom is only one aspect of human rights, but it is incredibly important to billions of faithful people around the world. Moreover, religious freedom is often an early indicator of broader restrictions on rights; its relative ease as a target means regimes will undermine these rights first before moving on to more widespread repression.

But the fact that its members can use the Human Rights Council in this way indicates its potential power. Repressive states have been able to manipulate debate and twist norms to give them the space needed to restrict their citizens’ religious freedom. Human rights champions could thus be just as effective in using council debates to push back on repressive states and strengthen international human rights norms. But only if they engage with the council.

So the Trump Administration is right to criticize the Human Rights Council. The Human Rights Council allows repressive states to commit acts of religious repression with little resistance. But leaving the council may do more harm than good. Without America on the council, it will be easier for rights abusers to further twist human rights debates and trample on religious freedom specifically. Considering that religious freedom is the only human right the Trump Administration has consistently claimed to defend, it should be particularly concerned by the implications of walking away. Instead, the Obama administration’s approach—criticize the council when needed, but work with it to defend rights and shame abusers—would be a better way to promote human rights around the world.