Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Monday morning that President Biden has directed the State Department to reengage with the U.N. Human Rights Council. This decision prioritizes the administration’s PR strategy over concrete diplomatic results.
The case for “reengagement” with the council is based on a misrepresentation of Trump-era U.S. diplomacy in Geneva, and it perpetuates the deeply damaging narrative that says however flawed the Human Rights Council may be, it’s not worth rocking the boat to demand change.
The Trump administration withdrew from the council in June 2018, citing structural problems that bias it against Israel and the continued participation of serial human-rights violators. While it has occasionally done valuable work on Syria, North Korea, and a few other human-rights hotspots, the council is too often hijacked by its many authoritarian members. “Such a council, in fact, damages the cause of human rights,” said erstwhile U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley when announcing our departure.
Proving her right, last year, Russia, China, and Cuba all won their elections for council seats, and the body passed five resolutions critical of Israel and none criticizing its newest human-rights-abusing members. Their hold over the council is so deeply entrenched that some of the U.N. special-rapporteur positions that it created have only ratified deeply damaging authoritarian talking points.
The Biden administration isn’t completely oblivious to the problems that plague what Blinken called this “flawed body, in need of reform”; rather, it says that reengaging is the best way to prevent authoritarian regimes from using it to their advantage. But Biden officials are still wearing rose-tinted glasses, convinced that their sloganeering about human rights and multilateral engagement will be enough to bring about positive improvement.
Blinken notes that America will “engage with the Council as an observer,” as if this were a significant change in policy. But it’s not. Not only is there no such thing as observer status, but the previous administration also effectively continued to participate in council-related activities in such a capacity even after it had terminated its membership. It played a role in the “universal periodic review” of the human-rights records of countries throughout 2019 and 2020, and it organized events around Geneva about human-rights abuses in Venezuela and China’s Uyghur concentration camps.
In fact, until the U.S. officially seeks a seat on the council, the only true change is that Biden is ordering American diplomats to participate in some council meetings. Overall, though, the Biden administration is only loudly declaring that it will do what the previous team more quietly did — a message reassuring to European diplomats and human-rights NGOs.
Which leads to another fallacy espoused by the Biden administration’s narrative — European diplomats and NGO staffers, rather than the 2018 withdrawal, have posed one of the most persistent obstacles to meaningful reform of the council.
When the Trump administration took office in 2017, a formal reform process was already slated to begin in 2021, but officials refused to accept four more years of the status quo. And thus the administration — hoping that it could succeed where the Obama administration failed — began an aggressive campaign to change the council spanning some 200 meetings with diplomats and human-rights advocates throughout 2017 and the start of 2018. Diplomats first sought fundamental changes to the council’s anti-Israel agenda and its lax membership criteria, but when it became clear that these were politically unfeasible, they expressed their willingness to accept less-ambitious measures that would have changed its day-to-day operations.
Still, at every turn, U.S. diplomats were blocked. The European delegations killed a modest package that would have streamlined the council’s agenda and diluted debate about its numerous anti-Israel resolutions. The NGOs fought off a reform proposal that would have transformed their annual Human Rights Council candidates’ forum into an event run directly by the U.N. (The groups objected, of course, out of a selfish desire to continue holding these events themselves.)
In case there’s any doubt about the weak link when it comes to standing up to human-rights abusers at the Human Rights Council: Before Washington had even decided to leave the body, the Chinese delegation won adoption of a resolution endorsing “mutually-beneficial cooperation” and other Chinese Communist Party–approved language on human rights in March 2018. Only the U.S. voted against the measure. The European countries, fearful of antagonizing Beijing, abstained.
But after Washington left, the other democracies learned to fend for themselves, and when China proposed a resolution with similar language last year, most of them voted against it.
The Biden team should have tried to leverage the new clear-sightedness of these U.S. allies to first seek reform of the council before announcing its reengagement. The U.S. delegation could have quietly worked with the other democracies ahead of the council’s March session — which will kick off the 2021 reform process — conditioning its return on their support for reforms.
Instead, the new administration went for the splashier option that advanced its “Diplomacy is Back” narrative, likely gaining nothing of substance.