Biden Administration Plans to Rejoin United Nations Human Rights Council

Biden Administration Plans to Rejoin United Nations Human Rights Council
President Joe Biden speaks about foreign policy at the State Department in Washington, on Feb. 4, 2021. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
Zachary Stieber

The United States is reengaging with the United Nations Human Rights Council and plans to rejoin the body, the Biden administration said on Feb 8.

While the council “is a flawed body in need of reform,” the U.S. withdrawal in 2018 not only didn’t encourage meaningful change, it “created a vacuum of U.S. leadership, which countries with authoritarian agendas have used to their advantage,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

“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,” he said.

Members are announced for the council once a year, meaning the United States can’t rejoin immediately. For now, the United States will engage as an observer, which includes participating in negotiations and working with partners on introducing resolutions.

“It is our view that the best way to improve the Council is to engage with it and its members in a principled fashion. We strongly believe that when the United States engages constructively with the Council, in concert with our allies and friends, positive change is within reach,” Blinken said.

Mark Cassayre, U.S. charge d'affaires at the U.S. mission to the U.N. in Geneva, told reporters: “While recognizing the Council’s flaws, we know that this body has the potential to be an important forum for those fighting tyranny and injustice around the world.

“By being present at the table, we seek to ensure it can live up to that potential.”

The reengagement fits Biden’s outlook on international partnerships, with the belief that it’s better to try to change them from within than withdraw entirely.

The Trump’s administration withdrew the United States from the council nearly three years ago, pointing to some of the biggest human rights abusers, including China, being among the members.
Overview of the United Nations Human Rights Council is seen in Geneva, on June 6, 2017. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)
Overview of the United Nations Human Rights Council is seen in Geneva, on June 6, 2017. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

“The Human Rights Council is a poor defender of human rights,” then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said. “Worse than that, the Human Rights Council has become an exercise in shameless hypocrisy, with many of the world’s worst human rights abuses going ignored and some of the world’s most serious offenders sitting on the council itself.”

China is one of the current 15 members, along with Bolivia, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, France, Gabon, Malawi, Mexico, Nepal, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, Senegal, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan.

The council started a new term on Jan. 1. Each nation is slated to be a member for three years, and can’t serve consecutive terms.

The United States could apply to fill one of three seats held by Western European countries Austria, Denmark, and Italy. Those seats are up for grabs in October.

Fijian diplomat Nazhat Shameem Khan, the new president of the council, told colleagues on Feb. 8 that the council would continue to work on responding to “deep inequalities” laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We know, as a community of nations, that emergencies and disasters, whether caused by a climate crisis or a health emergency, have the effect of exacerbating existing inequalities and of deepening poverty,” Khan said.

“This Council, and the constructive and inclusive nature of the dialogue it is able to host, is crucial to the building of societies which are fairer, resilient, and built on human dignity and equality. In doing so, the Human Rights Council takes on a role which is capable of transforming social, national, and global relationships.”

There was no mention of the Chinese Communist Party’s egregious human rights abuses, such as the widespread detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the brutal ongoing persecution of the spiritual discipline Falun Gong since 1999.

A group of House Republicans had urged Biden not to rejoin the council, alleging it “has failed to seriously advance the basic tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has instead bolstered some of the most oppressive regimes in the world.”

“The United States should not grant this body any further credibility with its membership,” they said.