The World of International Organizations

U.S. to ‘re-engage’ with Human Rights Council

Diplomats meet below Spanish abstract artist Miquel Barceló's ceiling painting in the U.N. Human Rights Council's chamber at Geneva (AN/Eric Bridiers)

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration will seek “observer” status before the United Nations Human Rights Council at Geneva in a prominent reversal of the former Trump administration’s aversion to multilateralism, America’s top diplomat, Antony Blinken, announced on Monday.

The decision to “re-engage” with the world’s foremost human rights body is the latest move by the new Biden-Harris administration to undo former President Donald Trump’s “America First” isolationist policy.

“The Biden administration has recommitted the United States to a foreign policy centered on democracy, human rights and equality,” Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, said in a statement. “Effective use of multilateral tools is an important element of that vision, and in that regard the president has instructed the Department of State to re-engage immediately and robustly with the U.N. Human Rights Council.”

Disdainful of international organizations and treaties, Trump pulled the United States out of the 47-nation council due to what his administration called a “chronic bias against Israel” and lack of credibility because it allowed nations such as China, Cuba and Venezuela to become members.

The move frustrated other nations, diplomats and activists who believed that U.S. participation in the council since 2009, when former President Barack Obama’s administration won a seat on it, has boosted its credibility. The United States often pushed to expose human rights tragedies in places like Cambodia, Congo and South Sudan, and was, at times, the only nation willing to call out China for alleged abuses and violations.

Blinken said the United States recognizes that the council “is a flawed body, in need of reform to its agenda, membership, and focus, including its disproportionate focus on Israel. However, our withdrawal in June 2018 did nothing to encourage meaningful change, but instead created a vacuum of U.S. leadership, which countries with authoritarian agendas have used to their advantage.”

When the council works well, Blinken said, it “shines a spotlight on countries with the worst human rights records and can serve as an important forum for those fighting injustice and tyranny.” He said the United States will now seek observer status, allowing American diplomats to speak in the chamber, take part in negotiations and “partner” with other nations to introduce resolutions.

“The council can help to promote fundamental freedoms around the globe, including freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and religion or belief as well as the fundamental rights of women, girls, LGBTQI+ persons and other marginalized communities,” he said. “To address the council’s deficiencies and ensure it lives up to its mandate, the United States must be at the table using the full weight of our diplomatic leadership.”

A ‘crucial voice’ welcomed back

American involvement with the council and its predecessor, the U.N. Human Rights Commission, has flip-flopped among Republican and Democratic administrations.

Democrats have tended to engage with the council despite its flaws, while Republicans have rebuffed it largely due to other nations’ prominent criticism of Israel. When the council was first created in 2006, former President George W. Bush’s administration refused to join. Nations are elected to seats on the council through votes in the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly based at New York. The United States served its maximum of two consecutive three-year terms, then won re-election in 2016 for a third term. It left before completing that term, and was replaced by Iceland in 2018.

“Glad to see the Biden administration’s reengaging with the world’s leading multilateral human rights institution,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter. “Trump had abandoned it largely because it regularly criticizes the Israeli government.”

Complaints of bias against Israel within the U.N. system have perpetuated for years particularly among the Group of 77 coalition of U.N. member developing countries. Pro-Israel rights groups and other campaigners have particularly disputed, and targeted for criticism, many of the actions of the Geneva-based council, which was created to promote and protect human rights around the world and to investigate suspected violations and abuses.

In 1946, the now-defunct U.N. Commission on Human Rights was formed. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights followed, becoming a standard around the world that, for the first time, insisted there are fundamental human rights that deserve the world’s protection. But after coming under sustained criticism as a highly politicized entity that was overly critical of Israel, the commission was replaced by the Human Rights Council.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the U.S. decision to re-engage with “the world’s leading forum for addressing the full range of human rights challenges,” according to a spokesperson’s statement. “The United Nations looks forward to hearing the crucial voice of the United States across the council’s urgent work.”

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