US pendulum swings back into the UN Human Rights Council - analysis

Republicans snub the UNHRC, which is fixated on Israel and gives cover to dictators. Democrats seek to reform it from the inside. Has either tactic worked?

The empty seat of Israel is pictured during a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, 2019 (photo credit: DENIS BALIBOUSE/REUTERS)
The empty seat of Israel is pictured during a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, 2019
Ever since the United Nations Human Rights Council was established 15 years ago, the American position on it has swung back and forth like a pendulum, staying out, joining, leaving, and now rejoining.
The problems at the UNHRC run deep. UN Watch, an NGO promoting UN reforms and transparency, has a database that shows just how badly the UNHRC has failed to do its stated job.
The UNHRC’s Executive Board is currently made up mostly of non-democratic countries, including notorious human rights violators like Venezuela and Pakistan, among others. At the UNHRC dictatorships are allowed to take leading positions.
Israel remains the only country about which the UNHRC has a permanent agenda item. Since the council was established, it condemned Israel 90 times, Syria 35 times, North Korea 13 times, Iran 10 times and Venezuela twice. Among the countries that have never been condemned by the UNHRC are China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Zimbabwe.
The UNHRC has held eight special sessions on Israel, as opposed to one on Libya, two on Myanmar and five on Syria, and has had eight commissions of inquiry on Israel, as opposed to one on North Korea and two each on Libya, Myanmar and Syria.
And the number of inquiries and special sessions is not the only issue; it’s their content. The UN’s expert on “Palestine” is only supposed to investigate Israel’s supposed violations, and not the Palestinian Authority and Hamas abuses of Palestinians and Israelis.
Every US administration since the UNHRC’s establishment in 2006 has admitted that it is a deeply problematic institution. The question is, in what way should the US use its considerable influence and budget in relation to the Council.
Republicans have viewed the UNHRC as a lost cause, corrupt to the core, with human rights violators embedded in the committee to stop their countries from being condemned, while the Council constantly and disproportionately focuses on Israel, and as such, the US has no reason to take part. Democrats, however, take the position that the only way to get the committee to do what it’s meant to do – protect human rights around the world – is for countries like the US to be there and try to guide it.
Under then-president George W. Bush, the US did not join the nascent committee, and within a year of its founding, the State Department spokesman at the time, Sean McCormack, said the UNHRC “has thus far not proved itself to be a credible body in the mission that it has been charged with.”
“There has been a nearly singular focus on issues related to Israel, for example, to the exclusion of examining issues of real concern to the international system, whether that’s Cuba or Burma or in North Korea,” he said.
Less than two months after entering office in 2009, former US president Barack Obama had the country join the UNHRC, with then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton touting human rights as “an essential element of American global foreign policy.” The US ambassador to the UN at the time, Susan Rice, said “we believe that [by] working from within, we can make the Council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights.”
In 2018, the US withdrew from the UNHRC under then-president Donald Trump.
“When the Human Rights Council treats Israel worse than North Korea, Iran and Syria, it is the Council itself that is foolish and unworthy of its name,” said former ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley.
On Monday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the country will return to the UNHRC as an observer.
Echoing Rice in 2009, Blinken said “the [UNHRC] is flawed and needs reform, but walking away won’t fix it. The best way to improve the Council, so it can achieve its potential, is through robust and principled US leadership. Under [President] Biden, we are reengaging and ready to lead.”
Israeli officials had no comment on the US decision.
But when the US left the UNHRC in 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the decision and thanked Trump and Haley “for their courageous decision against the hypocrisy and the lies of the so-called UN Human Rights Council.”
But at the time, Foreign Ministry sources said the US move could make efforts to block or soften anti-Israel UNHRC initiatives more difficult. Israel only downgraded its presence in the council. The Foreign Ministry said on Monday that Israel is currently an observer in the UNHRC, and always has been.
Almost a year ago to the day, Israel announced that it was cutting all ties with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, after it published its blacklist of businesses operating in Jewish areas over the Green Line. Israel is the only country against which the office, which is the secretariat of the UNHRC, compiled such a list.
UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer argued that the US rejoining the UNHRC “gives legitimacy to a Council where tyrannies and other non-democracies now comprise 60% of the membership, and where serial abusers like China, Russia, Cuba, Turkey and Pakistan get a free pass, escaping any censure.”
Neuer argued that the Obama administration was “a cheerleader for the council,” even praising sessions in which the council adopted anti-Western resolutions put forward by Cuba.
“The Biden administration should be candid in calling out the Council’s abuses and holding their feet to the fire,” he added.
Neuer called on the US to “demand serious reform, removing despots from the council... holding dictators to account and removing the notorious agenda item that targets Israel in each session.”
Looking at the UNHRC over the past 15 years, it’s clear that neither the Republicans’ nor the Democrats’ tactics really brought any changes to the UNHRC’s biased agenda and systemic distortions. In the end, it’s a question of whether America’s presence legitimizes a council that provides cover for dictators and is obsessively fixated on Israel.