The World of International Organizations Explained

Iceland replaces U.S. on U.N. rights panel

Iceland's capital Reykjavik (ARÊTE/Kévin Veau)

GENEVA — Iceland won election to the world’s top international organization for addressing human rights, filling a vacancy left by the United States after U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration announced its withdrawal last month.

The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to approve Iceland as the newest member of the U.N. Human Rights Council. The country received 172 votes in the 193-nation assembly; only a simple majority — at least 97 votes — was needed.

Iceland’s term begins immediately and runs through the end of 2019. It is the first time that Iceland has served on the 47-nation council based in Geneva.

The council’s membership is split among regions, so only nations from the “Western European and Other Group” were eligible to replace the United States. With this election, 108 U.N. member nations have served on the council, spokesman Rolando Gómez said.

Iceland’s Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson said his nation will use the seat to promote women’s and LGBTI rights, monitor countries where there are human rights concerns and push for the council to deliver justice for victims of human rights violations. Iceland’s U.N. diplomatic mission outlined its agenda in an 8-page memo to the General Assembly at U.N. headquarters.

Weakening the institution

The Trump administration, defying the international community, recently decided to pull the United States out of the council. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alleged the council is failing to fulfill its core mission of promoting human rights and is motivated by a longstanding bias against Israel.

After the U.S. announcement, the General Assembly’s president, Slovakian diplomat Miroslav Lajčák, said the U.N.’s collective work “will benefit from more dialogue and collaboration — not less,” and he encouraged the United States to “remain engaged in the work of the Human Rights Council.”

Diplomats and activists have long maintained that the council gained much-needed credibility from U.S. participation, which began under then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration. Human rights activists said the U.S. decision to withdraw itself as a member would weaken the institution.

“It goes without saying that we had not been planning to take a seat on the council at this time,” Thórdarson said in a statement posted by the International Service for Human Rights in Geneva and New York. “However, in these unique circumstances we believe it is right to declare our readiness. For us, this opportunity both represents a duty and a privilege, and we are determined to leave our mark.”

The world of international organizations explained.

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