GENEVA - The United States is expected to signal on Tuesday that it might withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council unless reforms are ushered in including the removal of what it sees as an "anti-Israel bias", diplomats and activists said.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who holds cabinet rank in President Donald Trump's administration, said last week Washington would decide on whether to withdraw from the Council after its three-week session in Geneva ends this month.

Under Trump, Washington has broken with decades of US foreign policy by turning away from multilateralism. His decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement last week drew criticism from governments around the world.

The Council's critical stance of Israel has been a major sticking point for its ally the United States. Washington boycotted the body for three years under President George W. Bush before rejoining under Barack Obama in 2009.

Haley, writing in the Washington Post at the weekend, called for the Council to "end its practice of wrongly singling out Israel for criticism."

The possibility of a US withdrawal has raised alarm bells among Western allies and activists.

Eight groups, including Freedom House and the Jacob Blaustein Institute, wrote to Haley in May saying a withdrawal would be counterproductive since it could lead to the Council "unfairly targeting Israel to an even greater degree."

In the letter, seen by Reuters, the groups also said that during the period of the US boycott, the Council's performance suffered "both with respect to addressing the world's worst violators and with respect to its anti-Israel bias."

The Council has no powers other than to rebuke governments it deems as violating human rights and to order investigations but plays an important role in international diplomacy.

Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory are a fixed item on the agenda of the 47-member body set up in 2006. Washington, Israel's main ally, often casts the only vote against the Arab-led resolutions.

"When the council passes more than 70 resolutions against Israel, a country with a strong human rights record, and just seven resolutions against Iran, a country with an abysmal human rights record, you know something is seriously wrong," wrote Haley.

John Fisher, Geneva director of the US-based Human Rights Watch, did not appear to fear an immediate withdrawal. "Our understanding is that it is going to be a message of engagement and reform," Fisher told reporters.

However, Fisher said Israel's human rights record did warrant Council scrutiny, but the special focus was "a reasonable concern".

"It is an anomaly that there is a dedicated agenda item in a way that there isn't for North Korea or Syria or anything else," he said.

Haley also challenged the membership of Communist Cuba and Venezuela citing rights violations, proposing "competitive voting to keep the worst human rights abusers from obtaining seats". She made no mention of Egypt or Saudi Arabia, two US allies elected despite quashing dissent.

The US envoy will host a panel on "Human Rights and Democracy in Venezuela" and address the Graduate Institute in Geneva before heading to Israel.

 

WASHINGTON (Reuters): The US Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a major case on privacy rights in the digital age that will determine whether police officers need warrants to access past cellphone location information kept by wireless carriers.

The justices agreed to hear an appeal brought by a man who was arrested in 2011 as part of an investigation into a string of armed robberies at Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in the Detroit area over the preceding months. Police helped establish that the man, Timothy Carpenter, was near the scene of the crimes by securing cell site location information from his cellphone carrier.

At issue is whether failing to obtain a warrant violates a defendant's right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the US Constitution's Fourth Amendment.

The information that law enforcement agencies can obtain from wireless carriers shows which local cellphone towers users connect to at the time they make calls. Police can use historical data to determine if a suspect was in the vicinity of a crime scene or real-time data to track a suspect.

The legal fight has raised questions about how much companies protect the privacy rights of their customers. The big four wireless carriers, Verizon Communications Inc(VZ.N), AT&T Inc(T.N), T-Mobile US Inc(TMUS.O) and Sprint Corp(S.N), receive tens of thousands of requests a year from law enforcement for what is known as "cell site location information," or CSLI. Carpenter's bid to suppress the evidence failed and he was convicted of six robbery counts. On appeal, the Cincinnati, Ohio-based 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his convictions, finding that no warrant was required for the cellphone information. Civil liberties lawyers say that police need "probable cause," and therefore a warrant, in order to avoid constitutionally unreasonable searches.

But, based on a provision of a federal law called the Stored Communications Act, the government said it does not need probable cause to obtain customer records. Instead, the government said, prosecutors must show only that there are "reasonable grounds" for the records and that they are "relevant and material" to an investigation.

Civil liberties groups assert that the 1986 law did not anticipate the way mobile devices now contain a wealth of data on each user. Carpenter is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Supreme Court has twice in recent years ruled on major cases concerning how criminal law applies to new technology, on each occasion ruling against law enforcement. In 2012, the court held that a warrant is required to place a GPS tracking device on a vehicle. Two years later, the court said police need a warrant to search a cellphone that is seized during an arrest.

Legal experts and civil liberties advocates said the case could become one of the most significant in years to address Fourth Amendment privacy issues raised in the digital age.

"Because cellphone location records can reveal countless private details of our lives, police should only be able to access them by getting a warrant based on probable cause," said Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

"The time has come for the Supreme Court to make clear that the longstanding protections of the Fourth Amendment apply with undiminished force to these kinds of sensitive digital records," Wessler added.

Steve Vladeck, a national security and constitutional law professor at the University of Texas, said the case will have "enormous implications" over how much data the government can obtain from phone companies and other technology firms about their customers without a warrant.

"Courts and commentators have tried to figure out exactly when individuals will have a continuing expectation of privacy even in data they've voluntarily shared with a third party," Vladeck said. "This case squarely raises that question."