Russia and China will join the UN Human Rights Council. The United States should too.


The main United Nations body for the protection of human rights elected perpetrators of serial human rights abuses, including Russia and China, to the panel, once again questioning itself it really is an important platform for dealing with the plight of millions of people – or an anachronism.

The Geneva-based 47-member United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) does two main things: it passes non-binding resolutions on human rights issues around the world and oversees the work of experts who investigate violations in specific countries. Its supporters, including those in the United States typically lean to the left, say it’s a place where nations can tackle issues that typically don’t get the world’s attention. His critiques, who are mostly right-leaning, argue that it is a toothless organization that bows down to authoritarians and maintains a deep anti-Israel bias.

Critics gained the upper hand in the debate this week when China, Russia, Cuba, Pakistan and Uzbekistan each won enough votes to sit on the HRC for a three-year term (although China received less votes than in previous years). Other despotic regimes looking for a place, such as Saudi Arabia, have not been given the green light, however.

The result led the former Trump administration ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, to castigate the panel on Twitter as “a total farce that does not deserve its name”, clearly defending America’s exit from the body on its watch in 2018.

Some experts say his views are not just partisan. “The Nikki Haleys of the world are right,” Richard Gowan, who oversees UN advocacy at the International Crisis Group (ICG).

After all, China has forced around 2 million Uyghur Muslims into indoctrination camps, and for years Russia has suppressed political dissent with excessive force while pushing “family values,” code for them. anti-LGBTQ policies. In addition, the council has continuously passed resolution after resolution condemning Israel, an ally of the United States, for violence against Palestinians while largely ignoring abuses by groups like Hamas. In fact, the HRC singled out Israel in its first year, not officially reprimanding any other country for human rights violations.

Given all of this, it’s fair to look at the advice and think that this is a problematic forum that the United States should stay away from. But experts say there are some issues with this view, namely that the United States is losing influence in this forum to push the Russians and China out of the world – and Israel is left without strong support in the council. .

“The presence and engagement of the United States can enhance the work of the council,” David Bosco, associate professor and United Nations expert at Indiana University in Bloomington, told me. “Russia and China often work together on the council to advance a vision of human rights more respectful of national sovereignty.” In other words, they are essentially arguing for a world without accountability: if no country criticizes what they do, they will not criticize what others are doing.

This approach, in simple terms, would almost certainly condemn millions of the world’s most vulnerable people to an even worse future.

The United Nations Human Rights Council was not a big forum. It’s much better now.

In 2006, the CDH replaced the discredited Human Rights Commission which, at one point, presided over Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. The change was touted as a much needed overhaul, as the commission got bogged down in geopolitical rivalries instead of focusing on real human rights issues.

One of the few countries skeptical of the Reformed Council was the United States, and the George W. Bush administration chose not to seek a seat it won. “I firmly believe that our influence in terms of the performance of the new board is greater by the fact that the United States does not show up and send the signal” it’s not business as usual “this year than if we had to introduce ourselves, ”John Bolton. the US ambassador to the UN, told The New York Times.

The lack of American involvement has made it more difficult for European countries and Canada, which are more pro-human rights than most, to push back nations that have continued to abuse their own people. This allowed states that often violate human rights not only to continue to do so, but also to block resolutions that could help millions of people in other countries.

“The advice was pretty bad before Obama,” said Marc Limon, who served as a diplomat with the HRC from 2006 to 2012 and is now the executive director of the Universal Rights Group in Geneva.

One of President Barack Obama’s first foreign policy steps was to run for a seat. His administration argued that the United States could have more human rights influence inside the panel than outside it. Experts said it was the right call: with the United States as a member, previously struggling resolutions – as some support LGBTQ rights around the world – have been successful.

The board was by no means perfect, but it actually worked much more as expected. “The United States has really made a difference,” Limon said. “It really changed the board for the better.”

The Trump administration was not initially hostile to the HRC, but it sought two main reforms: First, it wanted point 7 – which requires the body to focus on the human rights situation in Israel when of each of the three annual meetings – be canceled. This is, after all, the only agenda item specific to a country. Second, he wanted countries that violate human rights to be prevented from joining the Council.

Trump’s team never had any of these wishes, although they worked behind the scenes to pass their reforms. This failure, combined with the fact that CDH skeptic Bolton became National Security Advisor in April 2018, led Haley to announce America’s withdrawal. “The board ceases to live up to its name,” Haley said at the time. “Such advice actually harms the cause of human rights.”

However, to the surprise of the experts, the CDH better without the United States, although it has less to do with the absence of America and more with the work of the countries that remained, namely the European nations.

“Many western states have mobilized,” Limon told me, particularly with a focus on human rights in war-torn countries like Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Between them, they had a huge impact and did a great job.” This year, members even called on top UN human rights officials to look into the police brutality in America following the murder of George Floyd.

Analysts now say that the HRC is becoming more respectful of human rights with each cycle. It’s no different this time around, despite the seats won by Russia and China. The composition of the 47-member organization “will be the best we have ever had at the HRC,” added Limon, as there are more countries than ever that really care about promoting human rights.

There was also clearly a change in attitude, as China and Russia both received lower-than-normal vote totals among the countries allowed entry. Saudi Arabia, a nation with immense influence in the Middle East and the world, has failed, which could indicate that countries – which vote by secret ballot – are more suspicious of council members than members of the council. must in fact have a good record on human rights, lest they have a say in these matters.

Counseling, then, is still problematic, but it’s not the hell it once was. In fact, it is an institution ripe for the reentry of America.

The United States would be better served at the United Nations Human Rights Council than outside

Experts detailed two main reasons why the White House should consider joining the global body.

First, as mentioned earlier, it allows the United States to help set the human rights agenda instead of ceding that control to more repressive regimes. “The United States can work with other council members to gain support for resolutions, for the appointment of experts and to oppose ones it does not like,” said Bosco, the United Nations expert at Indiana University.

Moreover, being a member of the HRC means that the United States would have more legitimacy as a country concerned about human rights. This could give him more so-called “soft power”, not only at the UN but around the world. According to ICG’s Gowan, China is aiming to step into the vacuum left by the United States. “Chinese diplomats are much more active in Geneva on human rights today than they were a few years ago,” he told me.

Second, Israel no longer really has a strong advocate on the council. Israel is not a member, but the United States generally acted as a proxy and supported Jerusalem when point 7 was raised. Now, HRC states can dismantle Israel’s human rights record without a member being ready and willing to provide another debrief.

Together, it makes more sense that the United States is in the flawed council than out of it. Otherwise, he loses more than he wins.

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