Former UN Special Rapporteur on US Withdrawal From the Human Rights Council

In this interview, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University Richard Falk discusses the US’s withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and explains the overall impacts of the Trump foreign policy to date, something Noam Chomsky has referred to as the “Me First Doctrine.” Falk explains how the US “completely ignores the normative primacy in the 21st century of the right of self-determination,” in light of the withdrawal.

Falk asserts that “this combination of warmongering militarism and exclusionary nationalism is generating a new American foreign policy that might be identified as illiberal internationalism.”

On our current path, Falk argues that we are reaching, “dangerous forms of confrontation” as we encounter distractions in the mainstream media on a daily basis that undermine our capacity to meet “the challenges of climate change, biodiversity, nuclearism, migration and extreme poverty.”

Israeli hostility to the UNHRC is something that Richard Falk experienced firsthand while working as the UN special rapporteur on Occupied Palestine. Falk likens US withdrawal from the Council in “some respects, to the provocative move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem.”

As for Trump, Falk maintains that “his motivations are hard to assess as he proceeds by intuition and demagogic self-confidence, which means no accountability, no truthfulness and no coherence.”

Daniel Falcone: 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 claimed the UNHRC is “hypocritical and self-serving” and remarked of its “chronic anti-Israel bias.” What is in the UNHRC that compels the US to disengage?

Richard Falk: 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, which have long focused on the Human Rights Council as a venue hostile to their policies and practices. It 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 understood to be territory set aside for a Palestinian 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 leaves 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 21st century of the right of self-determination, and helps explain both Palestinian resistance and Israeli reliance on an apartheid matrix of control.

Rather than an anti-Israeli bias, the UN as a whole, and the [UNHRC] in particular, have done too little rather than too much with respect to 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 percent in 1947). It came up with a partition plan embodied in General Assembly Resolution 181, which — when rejected by the Palestinians — produced the [1947-1948 Civil War] resulting in the removal of about 750,000 Palestinians from the area set aside for a Jewish state, and the prolonged occupation of 22 percent of the territory that remained of the Palestine Mandated territory, governed by Jordan until 1967, and subsequently by Israel.

In other words, the UN has failed to produce a sustainable solution that protects minimal Palestinian rights and has been unable to curb Israeli behavior in conformity with international 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 as much an expression of its frustration as it is a real challenge to Israeli policies and practices. 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 [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] BDS campaign.

How can you describe the current reputation of the United States in world affairs? There was talk of the US pulling out preemptively so as to avoid an embarrassing condemnation from the UN for the US/Israel treatment of Gaza. Medea Benjamin also pointed out the possibility that “maybe [the US] didn’t want to be kicked out [of the UNHRC] for its own policy of ripping children from their parents and putting them in cages.”

The US by design and incompetence has pushed itself increasingly into a sterile 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, it has supported genocidal war-making directed toward 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 — possibly the world. The Trump repudiation of the nuclear agreement reached with Iran and the Paris climate change agreement is to retreat from positive internationalism … 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 UN 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 US withdrawal from the [UNHRC]. It seems over-determined, especially as of a piece with this pattern of withdrawing from other positive internationalist arrangements mentioned earlier. Surely, Israeli hostility to the [UNHRC] — which I experienced personally while serving as UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine — is a factor, but to what extent, is impossible to say. In some respects, the … withdrawal seems parallel to the provocative move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem. In effect, we think we are punishing the world, but in reality we are harming ourselves.

Describe the structure of US geopolitics at the moment and how allies are reacting to this unclear and confusing period? Also, do you see any good press coverage?

I think the Trump pattern is so erratic and generally dangerously destabilizing that it impairs our capacity to acknowledge positive initiatives even if … 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 may be fearful of Moscow disclosures with respect to the Russian policy, but should such dubious motives color our judgment of the policy? The mainstream media seems so polarized with respect to the Trump presidency, and thus tends to condemn or applaud, with little by way of differentiating the policy from the person.

Trump’s crude pushback against European allies has generated confusion. On the one side, there is [the] 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…. 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 healthy economic development…. Also, Europe is facing its own rising forms of right-wing populism and crisis of confidence in the viability of the European Union under pressures from the refugee influx.

Finally, the Asian context is different…. [I]t 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 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 it still involves a radical repudiation of the earlier promotion of neoliberal globalization and international liberalism.

Is there a strategy to this exit because of the Republican Party base in your view? How much of this is for electoral politics?

Earlier, the Trump presidency seemed divided, and there was more tension between the White House and the Republican leadership in Congress. Especially after the passage of the pro-rich, pro-business tax bill, the Trump hold on the Republican Party strengthened to the point that an astonishing 89 percent of Republicans, according to recent polls, now approve of his presidential leadership. This is profoundly worrisome, and at the same time, revealing that Republican dissent 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 and demagogic self-confidence, 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 feelings of “ordinary” Americans, and the potency of this appeal 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 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 a distinct American form).