Wider Consequences of U.S. Withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 9 Jul 2018
7 Jul 2018 – Interview with Daniel Falcone on 21Jun 2018
What are your thoughts on the US pulling out of the UNHRC and how are Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley’s disparaging and overly defensive claims different from what is taking place in the background? They’ve remarked how the UNHRC is “hypocritical and self-serving” and remarked of its “chronic anti-Israel bias.” What is it about the UNHRC that compels the US to disengage?
I think the superficial response to this latest de-internationalizing move is the tendency of the Trump Administration to align its policies in conformity with Israeli priorities and preferences, which have long focused on the Human Rights Council (HRC) as a venue hostile to their policies and practices. HRC is the most important actor in the UN System in which geopolitical pressures can be largely neutralized, partly because there is no veto, and partly because it is representative of the frustrations that the world as a whole has felt for decades in response to the dual Israel posture of defying international law while constantly expanding their grip on what was internationally widely understood after the 1967 War as territory set aside for a Palestinian sovereign state. This interactive process has gone on so long as to seem irreversible at this point, making the two-state solution reflective of the international consensus no longer a realistic option, which appears to leave open the path to an Israeli one-state solution that corresponds with the maximal Zionist vision of establishing a Jewish state with sovereignty over the whole of Palestine, which from the Zionist perspective is ‘the promised land’ of Jews by virtue of a biblical entitlement. Such a rationalization completely ignores the normative primacy in the 21stcentury of the right of self-determination to be exercised by the majority resident population and its legitimate representatives. This circumstance helps explain both Palestinian resistance and Israeli reliance on an apartheid matrix of control to shatter opposition to its goals.
Rather than an anti-Israeli bias, the UN as a whole, and the HRC in particular, have done too little rather than too much with respect to expressing disapproval of Israel’s policies and practices in Palestine. It should be recalled that after the British gave up their Mandatory status as administrator of Palestine after World War II, the UN was tasked with finding a solution to the tensions between the majority Palestinian population and the Jewish minority (of about 30% in 1947). It came up with a partition plan embodied in General Assembly Resolution 181, which when rejected by the Palestinians produced the Partition War resulting in the removal, mostly by force, of about 750,000 Palestinians from the area set aside for a Jewish state, and the prolonged occupation of 22% of the territory that remained of the Palestine Mandated territory, governed by Jordan until 1967, and subsequently militarily administered by Israel. In other words, the UN has failed to produce a sustainable solution that protects minimal Palestinian rights, much less its fundamental right of self-determination, and has been unable to curb Israeli behavior to conform to the constraints of international humanitarian law. It should be understood that the UN has no comparable unfulfilled responsibility with respect to any other territory in the world, and its attention to Israeli defiance is more of an expression of institutional frustration and futility than it meant to mount a serious challenge to Israeli behavior, including its flagrant violations of the Geneva Conventions and Protocols. To the extent Israel is challenged it comes from Palestinian resistance initiatives, as witnessed recently in the lengthy demonstrations and killings associated with the Great Return March, and secondarily, from the intensifying global solidarity movement highlighted by the growing success of the BDS Campaign. It is this success that is much more threatening to Israel than anything that happens at the UN, and helps explain their frantic effort to criminalize and penalize those that are active BDS supporters.
How can you describe the current reputation of the United States in world affairs? There was talk of the US pulling out preemptively as to avoid a embarrassing condemnation from the UN for the US/Israel treatment of Gaza.
The U.S. by design and incompetence has pushed itself increasingly into a sterile ‘America, First’ corner that has increased tensions in several regions of the world, loosened long-term alliance relations, weakened multilateral lawmaking, and raised risks of nuclear and regional warfare. Instead of seeking to overcome the turmoil that is causing massive suffering in the Middle East, the United States has lent material and diplomatic support to genocidal war making directed at Yemen and joined with Israel and Saudi Arabia in pushing toward a regime-changing intervention in Iran with dire potential consequences both for the Iranian people and the region, and possibly the world. The Trump repudiation of the 2015 nuclear agreement reached with Iran and the Paris climate change agreement is to retreat from positive internationalismand its global leadership role exercised since 1945, as well as to disrupt the institutional and treaty frameworks facilitating global trade and investment. This combination of warmongering militarism and exclusionary nationalism is generating a new American foreign policy that might be identified as illiberal internationalism, or maybe more graphically as negative internationalism. It is not only causing dangerous forms of confrontation, it is also acting as a catastrophic distraction from urgent problem-solving imperatives of this period of world history, especially, meeting the challenges of climate change, biodiversity, nuclearism, migration, and extreme poverty.
Real Clear Politics asserted that, “the international community stokes Gazans’ ruinous belief that Israel belongs to them and fuels their delusive dream of return. On May 18, for example, the U.N. Human Rights Council again improperly intervened in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favor of Hamas.” This outlet is called “ideologically diverse.” How crucial is Israel’s role in the US pullout?
It is difficult to assess the motivational calculus that prompted the U.S. withdrawal from the HRC. It seems over-determined, especially consistent with this pattern during the Trump presidency of withdrawing from other positive internationalist arrangements mentioned earlier. Surely, Israeli hostility to the HRC, which I experienced personally while serving as HRC Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine, is a factor, but to what extent, is impossible to say. In some respects, the HRC withdrawal seems parallel to the provocative move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem. In effect, we think we are punishing the world by our refusal to participate in these international arrangements, but in reality we are harming ourselves.
Describe the structure of US geopolitics at the moment and how are allies reacting to this unclear and confusing period? Also, do you see any good press coverage?
I think the Trump pattern is so erratic and dangerously destabilizing that it impairs our capacity to acknowledge positive initiatives even if narcissistically or defensively motivated. I find the liberal Democratic criticism of the Korean nuclear accommodation as the prime example, but another is the indistinct effort to normalize relations with Russia, avoiding a second Cold War. As suggested, Trump may be seeking glory for the Korean diplomacy and his fears of Moscow disclosures about his finances might drive his approach to Putin and Russia, but even such dubious and dark motives should not color our judgment of the policy? The mainstream media seems so polarized with respect to the Trump presidency, and thus tends mindlessly to condemn or applaud, with little by way of effort to disentangle the policy from the person.
Trump’s crude pushback against European allies has generated confusion. On the one side, there is a European sense that the time has come to cut free from the epoch of Cold War dependence on Washington, and forge security and economic policy more independently in accord with the social democratic spirit of ‘Europe, First.’ At the same time, there is reluctance to risk breaking up a familiar framework that has brought Europe a long period of relative stability and mostly healthy economic development to Europe. Such considerations create a mood of ambivalence and uncertainty, perhaps thinking that Trump is a temporary aberration from reestablishing a more durable framework versus the idea that Trumpism has given Europe and the separate states an opportunity to achieve a political future more in accord with the values and interests of the region and its member states than its longtime deference to the shifting moods and priorities of Washington. Also, Europe is now facing its own rising forms of right-wing populism, chauvinistic nationalism, and a resulting crisis of confidence in the viability of the European Union under pressures from the refugee influx and the unevenness of economic conditions in northern Europe as distinct from Mediterranean Europe.
Finally, the Asian context is different. Trump has sought to focus on revising the economic relationship with China in ways that supposedly help American business and consumers. In this pursuit, it would be helpful to stabilize the Korean peninsula and keep firm the relationship with Japan. So far, this pattern seems to describe the present approach, but given the clumsy impulsiveness of Trump when it comes to abrupt shifts in policy it is hazardous to make predictions as to the future course of American behavior in the Asian context. Maybe, just maybe, the absence of the Israeli dimension, may give Asian policy more flavor of coherence and rationality, yet such a possibility still involves a radical repudiation of the earlier promotion of neoliberal globalization and international liberalism, and a return to mercantilist approaches to economic nationalism.
Is there a strategy to this exit because of the Republican Party base in your view? How much of this, like Iran perhaps is for electoral politics?
Earlier in the Trump presidency seemed the Republican Party seemed divided, and there was more tension between the White House and the Republican leadership in Congress than recently. Especially after the passage of the pro-rich, pro-business tax bill in 2107, the Trump hold on the Republican Party strengthened to the point that an astonishing 89% of Republicans, according to recent polls, now approve of his presidential leadership. This is profoundly worrisome, and at the same time, revealing that any serious Republican departure from the Trump approach to major political issues will be viewed as virtual political suicide by career-minded Republicans.
As for Trump himself, his motivations are hard to assess as he proceeds by intuition, demagogic self-confidence, and unparalleled narcissism, which means no accountability, no truthfulness, and no coherence. Intellectuals tend, as they did with Reagan, to underestimate Trump’s capacity to connect with the raw feelings of ‘ordinary’ Americans, especially those feeling left out. This Trump appeal becomes formidable when bolstered by right-wing financial and ideological support.
I feel it is not too alarmist or misleading to talk of the present era of American political life as ‘pre-fascist,’ posing the formidable challenge of reversing the political current in the country as rapidly as possible to avoid any transition from pre-fascism to fascism (in some distinctly American form that refuses the language of fascism while implementing its worldview).
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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