Can Biden Fix the U.N. Human Rights Council?
The administration insists it can succeed where two U.S. presidents already tried and failed.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
Against the backdrop of crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council in a video message this week—a first for an American diplomat since Washington withdrew from the council under the previous administration. But it will take more than a speech by Blinken to reform this deeply flawed body, which boasts perennial human rights abusers such as China and Russia among its members and devotes much of its time to castigating Israel. President Joe Biden’s team needs a plan. And failing that, the administration should push ahead at double speed to institute a new body backed by the world’s free and democratic states, not its worst human rights abusers.
In announcing the U.S. return to the council earlier this month, Blinken said he recognizes “that the Human Rights Council is a flawed body, in need of reform to its agenda, membership, and focus,” yet he believes “the best way to improve the Council is to engage.” After his eight years in the Obama administration, Blinken should know that’s easier said than done.
In 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the United States would join the council and attempt to reform it from within. “We will engage in the work of improving the UN human rights system,” she said. Weeks later, China and Russia were elected to the council alongside the United States. Both won reelection in 2013.
Even the Trump administration, which exhibited deep skepticism and disdain for international organizations, tried engagement to reform the council. U.S. diplomats pressed for an end to the elections by secret ballot that allow countries to vote for human rights abusers without admitting it. They also sought elimination of what seems to be the council’s single standing agenda item: targeting Israel. Their campaign failed, and the United States withdrew from the council in mid-2018.
Last year, China, Cuba, Gabon, Pakistan, Russia, and Uzbekistan were elected to three-year terms on the council. Since its founding in 2006, the Human Rights Council has not passed a single resolution condemning any of these countries. Meanwhile, Israel has been the target of 90 separate condemnations.
Most egregious, of course, is China’s election to the council amid what Blinken calls a genocide in Xinjiang. In true Orwellian fashion, China was previously appointed to a panel within the council that evaluates experts on religious discrimination—presumably including those who might have looked at China’s horrific human rights abuses against its Muslim citizens.
So, what is the Biden administration’s plan to achieve reform where its predecessors tried and failed? In her confirmation hearing last month, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield pledged to confront China inside the U.N. system and combat the double standards applying to Israel. Now is the time to make good on that pledge.
Shaping the Human Rights Council is a primary objective of China’s larger strategy to exploit the U.N. system. While running candidates to take control of standards-making bodies and U.N. agencies that can be used to support Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative—such as the International Telecommunication Union, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the Industrial Development Organization—China’s growing influence over the council serves to whitewash its human rights record while putting the United States and its allies on the defensive.
As a first step to pushing back against China, the Biden administration should meet with a Human Rights Council whistleblower, Emma Reilly, who has evidence that the council regularly turns over names of Chinese dissidents to Beijing. The administration should make clear to the council that Washington will not tolerate any retaliation against Reilly by the U.N. or China and expects full transparency regarding her allegations. The State Department should also launch an independent investigation into the circumstances she describes.
At the same time, the Biden administration should build a multilateral coalition to implement the working definition of anti-Semitism developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance at the Human Rights Council and other U.N. agencies. Crucially, the definition includes using a double standard that only applies to Jews or the Jewish state. The Biden State Department affirmed its support for this definition, a precedent first set by the Obama administration in 2016.
As long as the council officially maintains a standing agenda item on Israel while single-mindedly pursuing other activities to delegitimize the Jewish state, it is in clear violation of the State Department’s standard. If the administration returns to the council without challenging this prejudice, it will be speaking from both sides of its diplomatic mouth when it comes to fighting hatred of Jews.
Even with these initiatives, the council’s key structural challenge remains: the secret ballot election process that allows human rights abusers to sit in judgement of human rights abuses. This systemic problem has only two solutions: changes mandated by the U.N. General Assembly or the establishment of a new group outside the U.N. system composed only of free and democratic states. If Biden makes good on his pledge to host a “global summit for democracy” during his first year in office, reform or displacement of the Human Rights Council should be high on the agenda.
In the meantime, however, the U.S. Congress should stand ready to exercise its oversight prerogative. American taxpayers’ money should not be spent legitimizing a genocide or mainstreaming anti-Semitism. The Biden administration says it can reform the broken Human Rights Council when two presidents tried and failed for years. History suggests otherwise.