US return to ‘flawed’ UN Human Rights Council draws criticism

February 9, 2021 by Sean Savage - JNS.org
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U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken announced that the United States will return to the U.N. Human Rights Council, reversing a move by the Trump administration, which withdrew from the international body in 2018.

The United Nations Human Rights Council chamber in Geneva. Credit: U.N. Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

The move is part of the Biden administration’s focus on recommitting the U.S. towards a “foreign policy centred on democracy, human rights and equality,” he said in a statement on Monday.

Eugene Kontorovich, director of International Law at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum, told JNS that the Biden administration likely understands the futility of rejoining the UNHRC.

“The administration is well aware that the UNHRC is a cruel mockery of human rights – lead by China, and with Israel its principal target,” he said. “It is rejoining not because it honestly expects it can reform the institution – such efforts have failed for decades. But cosmopolitanism and multilateralism are ideological commitments that demand rituals of participation.”

Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, who played a role in the Trump administration’s decision to leave the international body, said that it was sad to see Biden rejoining.

“The UN Human Rights Council doesn’t improve human rights. It covers for dictators & human rights abusers like Russia, China, & Venezuela,” Haley tweeted. “Sad to see the Biden admin[istration] legitimize an org[anization] that has become a farce to human rights advocates around the world.”

Former President Donald Trump pulled out of the UNHRC in 2018, citing its anti-Israel bias and inclusion of countries with deplorable human-rights records, such as China and Venezuela. Every UNHRC session features a permanent feature called “Agenda Item 7” that forces a discussion on the “human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories” that has led Israel to have more resolutions passed against it than any other country. Last year, the UNHRC also published an “anti-Israel blacklist” of companies that do business in eastern Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the Golan Heights.

Blinken noted the UNHRC’s anti-Israel bias but said leaving the body did little to address its flaws.

“We recognize that the Human Rights Council is a flawed body in need of reform to its agenda, membership and focus, including its disproportionate focus on Israel,” he said. “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.”

The United States will not be immediately rejoining the 47-nation body. It will act as an observer state, where it will participate in negotiations and partner with allies to introduce resolutions.

The United States has had a rocky relationship with the UNHRC since it was founded in 2006. At the time, President George W. Bush refused to seek out membership, but his successor, President Barack Obama, later joined the international body with the goal of seeking to promote change from within. While several U.S. allies, such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany are on the council, a number of other human-rights violators remain, such as China, Russia, Cuba and Somalia.

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