The Biden administration will rejoin the UN Human Rights Council as an observer, seeking to follow through on a campaign promise to bolster America’s support for liberal values while reversing a Trump-era policy.
Antony Blinken, secretary of state and a longtime human rights advocate, said the US would initially pursue observer status, giving it the chance to speak up and participate in negotiations without voting.
“When it works well, the Human Rights Council shines a spotlight on countries with the worst human rights records and can serve as an important forum for those fighting injustice and tyranny,” Blinken said in a statement on Monday, adding that “positive change” within the body was in reach.
The Trump administration withdrew from the 47-member council in 2018, citing years of bias against Israel and arguing that the inclusion of several members with records of human violations was hypocritical.
The intergovernmental body includes Russia, Venezuela and China, which the US has accused of committing genocide over its treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province. Eritrea, Mauritania and Pakistan are among other members regularly cited for human rights abuses.
Blinken argued the US could address the council’s deficiencies by being “at the table” and deploying its diplomatic leadership.
“We recognise 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,” said Blinken, adding US withdrawal only served to create a vacuum of US leadership that countries with authoritarian agendas had used to their advantage.
The US first joined the body in 2009 during the Obama administration, hoping it could steer reforms. Were the Biden administration to decide to run for a full-fledged seat, it could open up a competition against Finland, Italy and Luxembourg for three seats allocated to western countries that are due to open up later this year.
Some US officials were disappointed the Trump administration withdrew from the body, saying it was a shame to give up a tool of influence, however limited. The Trump administration also failed to prevent Beijing from winning a seat on the council last year.
“Re-engaging with the Human Rights Council is both symbolically important and diplomatically smart,” said Richard Gowan, UN expert at the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, adding that the Trump administration’s withdrawal was among the factors that had “badly dented” America’s standing as a voice for liberal values at the UN.
The Biden administration has promised to make human rights a priority and upheld its predecessor’s designation of China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims as “genocide”. It has also called the military takeover in Myanmar a coup and promised to hold Russia accountable for its treatment of Alexei Navalny, the political opponent who was poisoned with a chemical nerve agent and has since been jailed.
Blinken said the council could help to promote the fundamental rights of women, girls, LGBTQI+ persons and other marginalised communities.
The UN Human Rights Council was set up in 2006 after its predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights, was accused of failing to hold human rights violators to account. The US voted against the council’s creation under President George W Bush, and until 2009 sat at the back of meetings and lobbied members by proxy.
While New Zealand previously ceded its slot to the US when the Obama administration sought a seat in 2009, Gowan said the Europeans felt they had worked hard to keep UN systems going in the absence of US support.
“I think that the Europeans feel . . . Washington can’t just waltz back in every four to eight years and take seats that others want,” he said. But he added Biden and Blinken could try to change the calculus in European capitals through personal diplomacy.
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