Earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the United States is reengaging with the U.N. Human Rights Council as an observer, following the previous administration’s decision to withdraw from the body in 2018. Now, the Biden team is taking the next step: Washington will seek a seat on the Council starting in 2022, Blinken announced this morning.
Blinken and his colleagues say that council membership is a cornerstone of their “Diplomacy is Back,” human-rights-centric foreign-policy narrative. That said, their outlook isn’t totally sanguine: “As the United States reengages, we urge the Human Rights Council to look at how it conducts its business. That includes its disproportionate focus on Israel . . . Those with the worst human rights records should not be members of this Council. We must work together to improve the work and membership of the Council so it can do even more to advance the rights of people around the world,” said Blinken during his address at the council’s current session.
Blinken argues that a U.S. presence at the council’s proceedings in Geneva are the best way to prevent authoritarian powers — such as China, which has stepped up its efforts to redefine international human rights at the body — from running the show in Geneva.
This misses two points, though. First, the U.S., despite the previous administration’s rhetoric, never really left. The dramatic June 2018 announcement of America’s abandonment of the body belies the Trump administration’s continued participation in council activities behind the scenes to deliver good diplomatic outcomes and to shed a light on human-rights atrocities.
Second, Blinken and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the recently confirmed U.S. ambassador to the U.N., have given up any meaningful leverage with regard to a reform effort. The Obama administration spent eight years engaging with the council, delivering no significant changes to the way in which it operates.
The Trump administration tried as well, over the course of a year-and-a-half long campaign to secure some reforms. As U.S. diplomats ran into roadblocks, their ambitious goals narrowed, and even as a modest reform package dealing with the council’s agenda started to take shape, some of Washington’s European allies — France, Belgium, and others — killed it, eliminating any hope of shifting the council’s obsessive focus from Israel.
With the Biden administration declaring its intent to seek U.S. membership of the council once again, it tells these countries that American reengagement doesn’t come with the precondition of accepting reforms. This premature announcement of U.S. candidacy for a seat also fails to condition the bid for membership on the outcome of a reform process that starts this year.
Countering China’s growing influence at U.N. bodies deserves to be a top foreign-policy goal under any administration, but today’s announcement actually makes that harder. And it does so at the cost of legitimizing the work of a body which had long ago forfeited any claim to legitimacy.