The Biden administration has received mixed responses from Congress over its decision to have the United States re-engage with the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Under the Trump administration, the United States withdrew from the 47-member council in June 2018, noting that some of the worst human rights abusers—China, Cuba, and Venezuela—were council members.
On Feb. 8, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken slammed the 2018 decision, saying the withdrawal “did nothing to encourage meaningful change, but instead created a vacuum of U.S. leadership,” according to a press statement.
Acknowledging that the council is a “flawed body” in need of reform, Blinken said that President Joe Biden instructed the State Department to “re-engage immediately and robustly with the UN Human Rights Council” as an observer.
An observer in the council can submit draft resolutions but does not have voting rights.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), criticized Biden, saying he “should not give any shred of credibility” to the council since it “has become a place for despotic regimes to come together and receive international cover to continue to commit their horrific abuses,” according to a statement from his office.
Rubio pointed to human rights abuses currently happening under the watch of four current members—China, Cuba, Russia, and Venezuela. For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it has detained more than 1 million ethnic minorities, including Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz peoples, in internment camps in China’s far-western Xinjiang region.
In January, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated the CCP’s persecution against these minorities as genocide and “crimes against humanity.”
Rubio suggested the Biden administration turn its focus to “working with democratic allies to press for accountability and justice for these brutal regimes and advance the protection of human rights everywhere.”
He said: “The Biden Administration must make it absolutely clear that the United States stands for human rights and reject engaging with an organization that turns a blind eye to genocide.”
While top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul did not call for Biden to withdraw from the U.N. body, he said, “I urge the @POTUS @JoeBiden & @SecBlinken is to keep in mind the atrocities committed by members of UNHRC as the admin reengages.
“Our participation should be focused on implementing significant reforms at UNHRC, including ending the clear bias against Israel, and having the body investigate the genocide in #Xinjiang without delay,” he added.
“Our participation should be focused on implementing significant reforms at UNHRC, including ending the clear bias against Israel, and having the body investigate the genocide in #Xinjiang without delay.” (3/3)
— House Foreign Affairs GOP (@HouseForeignGOP) February 8, 2021
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the U.S. decision for re-engagement, according to a statement issued by his spokesman, calling the council “world’s leading forum for addressing the full range of human rights challenges.”
Several Democrats took to Twitter to voice support for the Biden administration’s decision, including Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). She said that the move is “empowering the oppressed, & reestablishing America’s credibility in the world.”
Last week, U.S. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) and 44 other Republican House lawmakers sent a letter to Biden, asking the president not to join the council that has adopted zero resolutions condemning countries including China, Russia, Cuba, and Pakistan between 2006 and 2019.
I joined House Republicans last week in urging President Biden not to rejoin the @UN Human Rights Council.
The US should not become party to a body that systematically shields the world’s worst regimes from accountability: pic.twitter.com/3OEJxUefWv
— Rep. Mark Green (@RepMarkGreen) February 8, 2021
“We believe [former] President Trump was right to withdraw the United States from the Human Rights Council. The United States’ participation in this body has not led to any meaningful reforms,” they added.
Unnamed U.S. officials told The Associated Press that the United State will seek one of the three full member seats in the “Western Europe and other States” group—currency held by Austria, Denmark, and Italy until the end of 2021—in the upcoming election this year. Winning countries will have a three-year term on the council.
The council is divided into five regional groups, and China currently holds a member seat in the Asia-Pacific States group until 2023, after winning the seat in an October election last year. Before this, China held a seat in the council from 2017-2019.
Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, who took to Twitter in January urging Biden not to rejoin the council, expressed disappointment over the re-engagement decision.
“Sad to see the Biden admin legitimize an org that has become a farce to human rights advocates around the world,” Haley wrote on Twitter.
Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, called on the Biden administration to avoid repeating the actions of the Obama administration—acting “like a cheerleader for the council.” He called on Biden to demand serious reforms, such as “removing despots from the council such as Venezuela’s Maduro regime. ”
“The U.S. should avoid lending legitimacy to a council where tyrannies and other non-democracies now comprise 60 percent of the membership,” he added.
He concluded: “[T]he Biden Administration should be candid in calling out the council’s abuses, and holding their feet to the fire.”