US rejoins UN Human Rights Council, reversing Trump's withdrawal

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and a senior US diplomat in Geneva announced on Monday that Washington has returned to the UN Human Rights Council as an observer.

UN HIGH COMMISSIONER for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet makes a speech at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, in February. (photo credit: DENIS BALIBOUSE/REUTERS)
UN HIGH COMMISSIONER for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet makes a speech at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, in February.
The Biden administration has re-established ties with the UN Human Rights Council three years after former US president Donald Trump exited the contentious body over its anti-Israel bias.
“The United States will engage with the council as an observer,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement he issued Monday.
The decision is part of a larger policy stance by US President Joe Biden to engage with international institutions, which is diametrically opposed to Trump’s position of shunning such bodies.
When the Trump administration left the UNHRC, it had been one of the council’s 47-member states that held three-year terms, which gave it voting power. At the time, in 2018, it not only gave up its seat, but severed all ties and refused to publicly engage in meetings.
Blinken clarified that the US will now be active in the council, but in an observer capacity, and not as a member state. Technically speaking, it can only regain that seat when annual elections are held by the UN General Assembly, typically in the fall.
The US “will have the opportunity to speak in the council, participate in negotiations, and partner with others to introduce resolutions,” Blinken said.
“It is our view that the best way to improve the council is to engage with it and its members in a principled fashion,” he added.
“We strongly believe that when the US engages constructively with the council, in concert with our allies and friends, positive change is within reach,” Blinken said.
“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,” Blinken said.
“However, our withdrawal in June 2018 did nothing to encourage meaningful change, but instead created a vacuum of US leadership, which countries with authoritarian agendas have used to their advantage,” he added.
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi spoke about the US decision with Blinken, telling him that the “UNHRC is a biased body with a longstanding record of flagrant discrimination against Israel.”
He added: “We are confident that the US will utilize its re-engagement with the Council to eradicate the institutional anti-Israel discrimination at the UN and bring about much needed reforms.”
The UN and a number of its member states lauded the move. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the UNHRC “is the world’s leading forum for addressing the full range of human rights challenges. The council’s mechanisms and special procedures are vital tools for ensuring action and accountability. The United Nations looks forward to hearing the crucial voice of the United States across the council’s urgent work.”
Officials from the Trump administration, in contrast, attacked the move.
Former US ambassador to Israel David Friedman tweeted: “Well here’s a terrible policy: rejoining the UNHRC.”
He then listed countries with problematic human rights records who were on the council.
“Who is leading the UN’s commission on human rights? China, which places its undesirables in concentration camps; Russia that jails its dissidents; and Cuba! Who is the permanent target? Israel. Donald Trump and [former US ambassador to the UN] Nikki Haley got it exactly right by withdrawing!”
Haley tweeted: “The UN Human Rights Council doesn’t improve human rights. It covers for dictators & human rights abusers like Russia, China, & Venezuela. Sad to see the Biden admin legitimize an org that has become a farce to human rights advocates around the world.”
The US has had a checkered history with the UNHRC, which was created in 2006. The Bush administration cut its ties to the council, refusing even to engage as an observer. Former US president Barack Obama re-established ties and held seats on the council, where it voted in support of Israel.
The Biden administration has now followed in Obama’s footsteps. Blinken in his statement said that the UNHRC can be effective when it “shines a spotlight on countries with the worst human rights records and can serve as an important forum for those fighting injustice and tyranny.”
He noted that it could promote fundamental freedoms such as the right to free speech, assembly and worship, as well as gender and transgender rights.
“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,” Blinken said.
Washington immediately made good on its statement, sending its charge d’affaires Mark J. Cassayre to the UNHRC organizational meeting in Geneva on Monday, where he announced that his country would once more take an active role in the proceedings.
All 193 UN members have a right to speak and engage with the council, but voting is limited to just the 47 members.
Israel has never had a seat at the council, but unlike the US, it continued to engage with it during the Trump years, including speaking at meetings.
The UNHRC meets three times a year in Geneva and is next scheduled to convene from February 22 to March 23.
One of its mandates dictates that the issue of alleged Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians is held at each session, under Agenda Item 7, which is set aside for such purposes. Israel is the only country for which such a mandate exists. Alleged human rights abuses of all other countries are dealt with under Agenda Item 4.
That agenda item will also be included in the next council sessions. March is typically the session where multiple resolutions are passed against Israel and such resolutions are expected to be approved next month as well.
Debates on alleged Israeli human rights abuses are held at the two other sessions, but resolutions against Israel are not typically voted on in them.
At Monday’s organizational meeting, Pakistani Ambassador Khalil-ur-Rahman Hashmi spoke on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which he said planned to submit one pro-Palestinian resolution under Agenda Item 2, called “Insuring Accountability and Justice for all Violations of International Law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory Including East Jerusalem.” In the past this resolution has typically called for an arms embargo against Israel.
The ambassador said the OIC planned to submit four more resolutions on Israel and the Palestinians under Agenda Item 7.
The first would affirm the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, he said. The second would speak of “human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem.” The third would be on “Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem and in the occupied Syrian Golan” and the last one on “human rights in the occupied Syrian Golan,” he said.