| 20.06,18. 07:13 PM |
Without the US in the Human Rights Council, Australia's looking lonely
Photo: Julie Bishop issued a terse statement about the US departure from the council. (AAP/UN, Kim Haughton)
It was close to midnight in Geneva when Nikki Haley got to her feet in Washington and announced that the United States was pulling out of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
If there were any Australian diplomats still up at that hour at the council's headquarters in Switzerland, they would have been watching with dismay.
Their lives are about to become more difficult.
The announcement from the US ambassador to the UN surprised no-one. Donald Trump's lieutenants have made it clear they hold the council in contempt, accusing it of "chronic bias" against Israel.
Ms Haley declared that the council's "disproportionate focus and unending hostility toward Israel" was "clear proof that [it] is motivated by political bias, not by human rights".
She also pointed out that many countries with appalling human rights records — including Venezuela, China and Democratic Republic of Congo — are comfortably ensconced in the council.
Australia actually has plenty of sympathy for both of these arguments. But the Federal Government maintains that whatever the council's flaws, quitting the field achieves nothing.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop issued a terse statement this morning, making it clear she'd urged her US counterparts to stay, but to no avail.
"It was our strong preference for the US to remain a member of the UNHRC and I had made this known to senior members of the Trump administration" she said.
The Foreign Minister's frustration is understandable.
The Trump administration's decision to pull up stumps could put our officials in Geneva in an excruciating position. Particularly when it comes to Israel.
Last month Australia and the US were the only two countries on the council to vote against an independent investigation into the killing of Palestinians in Gaza.
Both argued that the inquiry's terms ignored the role Hamas played in inciting the violence.
And like the US, Australia believes that the council's preoccupation with Israel is steeped in anti-Semitism.
But the debate over Gaza will inevitably flare up again as the council forges ahead with the investigation.
There will be more resolutions on Israel, and more votes.
But this time, the United States won't be there.
US departure leaves Australian diplomats exposed
If Australian diplomats hold the line, we could be the only country on the council voting against further investigations into Israel, or opposing resolutions condemning their conduct.
That leaves us terribly exposed, in the heart of a bitter and emotionally charged debate about one of the world's most intractable conflicts.
Israel's opponents normally focus their fire on the US and Israel itself, but if they're out of the room then the anger coursing through the debate will inevitably be redirected towards us.
The consequences of that are difficult to predict. But we'd rather not find out.
Our best hope will be to convince some of the 14 countries that abstained on the last vote to join us in the trenches, but that's an uncertain bet at best.
Meanwhile, China's influence on the council grows
While the debate over Israel will seize media attention, the Trump administration's deepening isolationism could have more subtle and lasting consequences for the Human Rights Council.
China has been quietly working to fundamentally reshape the way the council approaches human rights.
In the last session it introduced a harmless sounding motion called: Win-Win Cooperation for the Common Cause of Human Rights.
The language sounds anodyne and unthreatening. It emphasises "dialogue on an equal footing" and "mutual benefit to encourage multilateral human rights institutions".
But human rights groups warn that China is focusing on "dialogue and cooperation" because it wants to draw attention away from specific allegations of human rights abuses.
Australian officials also believe China's fundamental aim is to make it harder for the council to investigate what Beijing calls "the internal affairs" of individual countries.
The risk is that the Human Rights Council — already an imperfect body — could be defanged entirely.
Australia and our allies have been pushing back against this shift in language, but the United States provided the most muscular resistance.
Now it's gone.
America Alone means Australia is a little more lonely as well.