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A decision by the United States to disengage from the UN Human Rights Council amounts to an abandonment of human rights defenders and victims, Human Rights Watch said today.

The United States announced today at its daily State Department briefing that it will only participate in debates at the council when absolutely necessary and it feels compelled to do so by “matters of deep national interest.” The United States failed to take the floor today in a council discussion on Burma, indicating the broad scope of its withdrawal. Although not a member of the Human Rights Council, the United States had participated as an observer at the council since its inception in 2006.

“The US decision to walk away from the Human Rights Council is counter-productive and short-sighted,” said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Whatever the council’s problems, this decision is a victory for abusive states and a betrayal of those fighting for their rights worldwide.”

The council remains a critical institution for protecting human rights throughout the world, despite some substantial weaknesses, Human Rights Watch said. The council’s system of human rights monitors, for example, provides crucial reporting on abuses such as torture, violence against women and extrajudicial executions, and on countries with ongoing human rights crises, such as Burma, Somalia and Sudan.

In its first two years, however, the Human Rights Council has failed to address more than 20 human rights situations that require its attention, eliminated human rights monitoring in places desperately in need of such scrutiny, and adopted a long stream of one-sided resolutions on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories which failed to consider the roles and responsibilities of the Palestinian authorities and armed groups. Given its failure to engage fully at the council, the United States was ill-placed to confront those problems.

“Washington’s hands-off approach to the Human Rights Council undermined it from the start,” said de Rivero. “It’s ironic that the US shares responsibility for the shortcomings it’s now using to justify further distancing itself from the council.”

The US decision was also ill-conceived, Human Rights Watch said, given the absence of viable alternatives to the council. Human Rights Watch also questioned the timing of the US decision. On May 21, the General Assembly held elections for membership of the Human Rights Council. In those elections, following a campaign by human rights defenders in Sri Lanka and worldwide, Sri Lanka’s bid for a seat was defeated. Sri Lanka has a track record of enforced disappearances and torture. That defeat, and the defeat of Belarus in the previous year, demonstrated the potential for building a stronger council with a membership truly committed to fighting human rights abuses.

Human Rights Watch noted that the human rights record of the US, particularly abuses in its counterterrorism efforts, undermined its credibility in defending human rights at the council. The US failed to cooperate with human rights experts from the council who sought to investigate its Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Despite those concerns, states with a record of supporting human rights at the council stressed that having the US at the table was very important to building a stronger, more effective Human Rights Council.

In March 2006, the United States was one of only four states that voted against the UN General Assembly Resolution establishing the new Human Rights Council. That year, and in two subsequent elections of members to the council, the United States did not seek a seat on the body.

“Instead of ceding the field to those who want to shield abusers from scrutiny, the US should have redoubled its efforts to make the council work as it should,” de Rivero said.

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