Biden administration to rejoin UN Human Rights Council

The Biden administration has announced it will rejoin the Human Rights Council as an observer and vowed to seek reform of the "flawed body". (Keystone / AP Photo / Alex Brandon)

The United States has announced it will rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) as an observer while seeking reforms of the “flawed body”, three years after former president Donald Trump withdrew from the council.

“The Biden administration has recommitted the United States to a foreign policy centred on democracy, human rights, and equality,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday. “Effective use of multilateral tools is an important element of that vision, and in that regard the President has instructed the Department of State to re-engage immediately and robustly with the UN Human Rights Council.”

The announcement is the latest step by President Biden to reverse the Trump administration’s move away from multilateral organisations and agreements, including the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization (WHO). He has also signalled his intention to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and UNESCO.

The move has been welcomed by human rights groups around the world as a further sign of the Biden administration’s intention to re-engage with the international community, particularly the UN.

“The interrelated challenges of climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and profound inequalities mean that now, more than ever, we need multilateralism, the UN and an international order founded on respect for human rights and the rule of law,” said Phil Lynch, director of the Geneva-based International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), speaking to Geneva Solutions. “Constructive US re-engagement with the UN could contribute to more effectively and cooperatively addressing some of the world’s most significant and pressing human rights problems and, in so doing, also advance US interests.”

President Biden’s announcement will undoubtedly draw criticism from US conservatives and pro-Israel figures who share Trump’s reservations. The former president pulled out of the UNHRC in 2018 due to its disproportionate focus on Israel, which has received the highest number of critical council resolutions against any country.

The council also failed to accept the reforms proposed by then-U.S Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley related to the body’s membership, which currently includes many countries accused of human rights abuses such as China, Russia, Eritrea and Venezuela. The Trump administration demanded reforms to prevent authoritarian countries from joining, however these were rejected.

In a tweet last month, former ambassador Haley called the body a “cesspool of political bias” and warned that rejoining would hinder Biden’s commitment to upholding human rights.

"The UN Human Rights Council is a cesspool of political bias that makes a mockery of human rights. If Biden rejoins the council whose membership includes dictatorial regimes & some of the world’s worst human rights violators, it will fly in the face of our fight for human rights," she tweeted.

Last week, 40 House Republicans signed a letter to President Biden urging him to reconsider the move, accusing the council of “disproportionately targeting” Israel while ignoring reports of rights abuses by other members.

“Israel is the only country to be a permanent item on the council’s agenda,” the letter read. “This past year, the 43rd Human Rights Council Session adopted five resolutions condemning Israel, and only one each targeting Iran, Syria and North Korea.”

However, the announcement that Biden will push for an overhaul of the body will be welcomed by many critics who believe states such as China and Russia have used the US’ absence to their advantage.

“We recognise that the Human Rights Council is a flawed body, in need of reform to its agenda, membership, and focus, including its disproportionate focus on Israel. However, our withdrawal in June 2018 did nothing to encourage meaningful change, but instead created a vacuum of U.S. leadership, which countries with authoritarian agendas have used to their advantage,” Blinken said in a statement.

The council already appears to be taking some steps to reform, with the election of Fiji as president in January widely welcomed. A nation with a strong record of promoting human rights, Fiji has backed investigations into reported abuses in Venezuela, Belarus, Syria and Yemen during its time on the council.

Hopes are high that Biden's influence will push the council to step up action to tackle human rights abuses in member states, particularly China and Saudi Arabia. The president referenced both countries in his first foreign policy speech on Friday, vowing that the US will “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again” in a marked departure from President Trump’s 'America First' approach.

China featured heavily in the speech, with Biden promising to confront Beijing over its “coercive actions” and “attack on human rights, intellectual property and global governance”. The president also said the US would end its support of “offensive operations” in Yemen, including ending “relevant arms sales” to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and pushing for a ceasefire, although he added the US would continue to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory.

“In the year ahead it is imperative that member states at the UNHRC step up and take collective action to address widespread and systemic human rights violations in countries including China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while also continuing to focus attention on major global issues such as systemic racism, profound inequalities and climate change, ”said the ISHR's Phil Lynch.

The US will return to the council as a non-voting observer until the end of 2021, however it is possible that the administration could seek one of three full member seats - currently held by Austria, Denmark and Italy - from the “Western Europe and other states group ”, which will come up for election at the end of this year.

“While recognising the Council's flaws, we know that this body has the potential to be an important forum for those fighting tyranny and injustice around the world,” said Mark Cassayre, deputy chief of mission at the US mission to the UN in Geneva, following the announcement on Monday. “By being present at the table, we seek to ensure it can live up to that potential.”