The U.N. Human Rights Council Is Still a Platform for Dictators

Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland in 2018. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)
Some of the world’s most egregious violators of human rights sit on the council and pass judgment on the United States’ actions.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE ‘T he systematic racial discrimination in the United States constitutes the world’s hottest human-rights issue,” said North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the U.N., during a Human Rights Council meeting on racism in the United States and around the world, prompted by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

In the wake of Floyd’s death and the upheaval that has followed, an “urgent debate” was requested last week in a letter to the council written by Burkina Faso’s U.N. delegation on behalf of 54 African countries. Their intention was to examine “racially inspired human rights violations, police brutality against people of African descent and the violence against the peaceful protests that call for these injustices to stop.” The request for a debate was also backed by more than 600 non-governmental organizations and Floyd’s family. And so, it began yesterday and ended Thursday morning. The council will vote on a resolution Friday or Monday.

The United States was notably absent, having quit the council in 2018. The Trump administration withdrew after an unfruitful attempt to reform the body’s handling of Israel and its conciliatory stance toward a number of human rights–violating countries. Some opponents of that move claimed vindication this week, arguing that the vacuum left by the withdrawal has enabled authoritarian regimes, leaving America with less sway on the international human-rights body. “This situation is the end result of a series of catastrophic miscalculations of the Trump administration in its relations with the U.N.,” Marc Limon, a former diplomat, told the New York Times.

He and other experts might say that the way this week’s debate unfolded supports their view. The act of convening an urgent debate on the United States’ human-rights record makes it only the third such country at the center of one — a session on Israel’s raid on a Gaza flotilla in 2010 and three concerning the Syrian civil war round out the list. Perhaps this could have been avoided with American membership on the council. On the contrary, though, this week reprises significant questions about the council’s ability to effectively and fairly promote universal human rights.

On Tuesday, the group of African countries that called for the debate circulated a draft resolution calling for a commission of inquiry into the racially motivated killings of black people in the United States. These commissions are among the council’s strongest tools to investigate human-rights abuses. In the recent past, such investigations have won praise for unearthing actionable findings in a number of countries. The UNHRC cannot issue legally binding decisions, but the adoption of such a commission could have been deleterious to America’s reputation for human-rights promotion, no matter the panel’s findings.

But by the time the U.N. special rapporteur on racism called for a commission of inquiry at the opening of Tuesday’s debate, the African bloc had already decided to put forward a revised version of its original proposal, the new one calling for a less substantial investigation by the U.N.’s top human-rights official. The most recent reports say that the resolution that will finally be voted on has been watered down even more, not mentioning the United States specifically. This was the result of maneuvering by U.S. diplomats to tone it down.

Throughout the debate, sharp criticism of the United States and calls for a commission of inquiry were mixed with more general condemnations of racism worldwide. Some U.S. allies expressed faith in the ability of American officials to seek justice for Floyd’s killing, noting the arrest of the offending officers and the police-reform proposals currently under consideration. South Korea even referred to demands for a commission of inquiry as “questionable,” calling the mechanism relevant only when a country’s authorities decline to work toward the rectification of a rights violations. This would suggest that concerns about the United States’ absence have not been borne out. Even two years after withdrawing, it retains significant influence on the council.

American skepticism of the UNHRC has been validated by the attempts of dictatorships to coopt the debate for their own ends. Unsurprisingly, some of the most pointed criticism of the United States during this week’s debate came from its usual adversaries. They condemned “Yankee imperialists” (Venezuela); “modern-day police brutality at home and aggressive, belligerent policies and bullying abroad” (Syria); and “racism, police tyranny and lawlessness” (Russia).

Ahead of the debate, Andrew Bremberg, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, made an important point: Acknowledging that “we are not above scrutiny,” he said that any resolution on racism implicating the United States should name all countries engaged in racist practices and policies, strongly suggesting that the council look at China for its mass detention of Uighur Muslims and Iran for killing some 1,500 peaceful protesters last year.

For its part, China was recently added to a panel that oversees the appointment of U.N. human-rights experts. And while the country does not currently sit on the UNHRC, Venezuela, another country notorious for shooting protesters, does. Following elections in October, it might be joined by Russia and Cuba. Meanwhile, Syria and North Korea remain the subjects of commissions of inquiry that have yielded some horrific findings. Each of these countries participated in the debate.

This prompts an important question: Can an international body that claims to uphold human rights fulfill its mandate while also permitting the participation of some of the most egregious human-rights violators in the world? In withdrawing from the council, the United States has already provided its answer — while still maintaining a significant degree of influence in Geneva.

In a domestic context, taking a comprehensive look at racism in the United States could potentially contribute to much-needed change, and such a process has begun in recent weeks. But as is too often the case at the U.N., another attempt to do good has been tainted by authoritarian meddling.

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