US Exit Leaves Mystery Empty Seat at UN Rights Group

UNITED NATIONS (CN) – The sudden U.S. departure from the U.N. Human Rights Council has left the international peacekeeping body in unknown territory about how to fill the vacant seat.

“Since the establishment of the council, no member of the council has withdrawn and so there’s no past practice,” Brendan Varma, the spokesman for General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak, told reporters on Wednesday.

“The vacancy would have to be filled through an election in the General Assembly of a candidate from that group, and so we’re looking into possible next steps,” Varma added.

With U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres currently in Moscow, rumors have been circulating that Russia would vie for the spot, but Varma dispelled the rumor by noting the country is not eligible for the seat, which is assigned geographically.

General view of the Human Rights Council. Photo courtesy of the U.N.

Established in 2006, the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council did not contemplate one of its 47 member states quitting during its formation more than a decade ago.

President Donald Trump forced many in the United Nations to ask that question for the first time on Tuesday, when he sent Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to announce their acrimonious exit.

Haley called the council a “protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias,” while Pompeo labeled it an “exercise in shameless hypocrisy.”

Secretary Antonio Guterres has not returned fire: His spokesman Stephane Dujarric maintained a mild and accommodating tone at today’s press briefing.

“The United States plays a critical role in the United Nations,” Dujarric said. “The Secretary General would want to see a United States that is engaged and is involved throughout the U.N. system.”

By far the U.N.’s largest funder, the United States under Trump has been a wrecking ball hurtling toward several of the organization’s key initiatives, moving to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, the Iran deal, and UNESCO. It has threatened painful budget cuts if the organization does not “reform,” a watchword that Guterres has embraced.

“The Human Rights Council is the product already of a very serious reform that took place a few years ago,” Dujarric said. “The criticism that we’re hearing is in the substance of the discussions and the resolutions voted, and that is an issue for member states.”

The United States has long complained about the Human Rights Council’s criticism of Israel, whose occupation of the Palestinian territories – the only country-specific permanent item on the council’s agenda.

The day the United States withdrew from the council, Secretary General Guterres warned that Gaza was on the “brink of war.”

“We’re in a period of high risk in Gaza,” Dujarric added today. “We’re pushing for a number of issues, including greater humanitarian aid.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government has killed at least 130 Palestinians and wounded 13,000 others since protests started in March, applauded Trump’s maneuver as a “courageous decision against the hypocrisy and lies of the so-called U.N. Human Rights Council.”

The Trump administration also has felt the sting of U.N. criticism, as its human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein described his family separation policy as “unconscionable” and “government-sanctioned child abuse.”

The Department of Homeland Security has admitted that nearly 2,000 children had been separated from their parents within a six-week period between April and May. More than 200 hundred are housed in New York City. Detention centers for babies and toddlers known as “tender age” shelters have been reported by the Associated Press.

Dujarric declined to speculate on whether the U.S. departure had any connection to growing U.N. criticism of Trump’s immigration policies and deteriorating conditions in Gaza.

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