The World of International Organizations

U.S. seeks to rejoin Human Rights Council

Then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer at the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2009 (AN/Jess Hoffman)

The United States will campaign for a three-year seat on the world’s top human rights body, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Wednesday in another reversal of foreign policy from the former Trump administration.

Blinken told the United Nations Human Rights Council that the United States, under U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, is “committed to a world in which human rights are protected, their defenders are celebrated, and those who commit human rights abuses are held accountable.”

Elections for seats on the 47-nation council are usually held in October of each year. The 193-nation U.N. General Assembly votes for countries using a system that tries to keep the council geographically representative among five regional groups: Africa; Asia-Pacific; Eastern Europe; Latin America and the Caribbean; and Western Europe and “other” nations — the category for the United States.

Contrary to former President Trump’s “America First” policies, the Biden administration believes that “promoting respect for human rights is not something we can do alone, but is best accomplished working with our allies and partners across the globe,” Blinken said in a statement. He said Biden wants a foreign policy “that unites our democratic values with our diplomatic leadership, and one that is centered on the defense of democracy and the protection of human rights.”

Trump announced the U.S. was abandoning the Geneva-based Human Rights Council in June 2018, accusing it of undermining America’s interests and allies due to bias against Israel — a longstanding complaint — and to allowing human rights violators to become member nations. A month later, Iceland won the election to serve out the remainder of the U.S. term through the end of 2019.

Since then, the United States has held “observer status” before the council. It will now campaign to fill one of the three seats that Austria, Denmark and Italy will vacate at the end of 2021.

‘A seat at the table’

The now-defunct U.N. Commission on Human Rights, formed in 1946, lost credibility as a politicized entity overly critical of Israel and was replaced by the Human Rights Council in 2006. Former President George W. Bush’s administration refused to join. But former President Barack Obama’s administration won election in 2009, served two terms, took a year off, then won re-election in 2016.

Until Trump took office in 2017, the United States was one of the few nations on the council that consistently pushed to expose human rights tragedies and was willing to call out serious abuses and violations allegedly perpetrated by other powerful member nations.

Blinken told the council, which began meeting this month mostly by videoconference, the United States “has long been a champion of human rights” and will use the council seat, if elected for the 2022 to 2024 term, to again become “a leading voice within the council for promoting respect for human rights.” He called the council an important multilateral venue for investigating abuses and violations.

“We acknowledge challenges at the council as well, including unacceptable bias against Israel and membership rules that allow countries with atrocious human rights records to occupy seats they do not merit,” Blinken said in a speech that echoed some of the former Trump administration’s claims. The United States, he added, will seek the elimination of a recurring item on the council’s agenda that brings regular scrutiny of the human rights situation in Israel and Palestine.

“However, improving the council and advancing its critical work is best done with a seat at the table,” he added. “We seek to return to the Human Rights Council to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and partners to ensure that this important body lives up to its purpose. We do so with determination to listen, learn, and work toward a world in which human rights are universally respected.”

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