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United States rejoins UN Human Rights Council

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. (Eduardo Munoz/Pool Photo via AP)

The United States was re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council on Thursday more than three years after former President Trump abandoned the body, accusing it of anti-Israel bias and hypocrisy.

The US was one of 18 countries elected by the UN General Assembly in a secret ballot held to select new members of the UN’s top rights body. They will begin their three-year council term from January next year.

Absent since Donald Trump quit the Geneva forum in 2018, the US re-engaged with the council as an observer state soon after the election of President Joe Biden in January 2021. The new president pledged to rejoin as a full member, citing it as a key “multilateral tool” to protect and promote human rights.

“With [President Biden’s] pledge fulfilled, we will work to ensure the Council lives up to the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” wrote US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield on Twitter following the vote. “Thanks for the overwhelming support from Member States.”

US-China power struggle. UN observers have noted that challenging China’s growing influence over the body will be a top priority for the US.

China’s sway over the council has undoubtedly grown in Washington’s absence. In recent years, Beijing has frequently tabled joint statements with partners such as Belarus and Venezuela supporting its actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet and accusing Western countries of violations.

The US-China rivalry has been clear since the Biden administration re-engaged as an observer in January, with the US frequently hitting back at China for alleged abuses. There are concerns the tension between the countries will detract Washington from making gains elsewhere at the council, where the Obama administration proved a powerful force on issues ranging from country-specific situations to thematic initiatives.

“The US has focused all of its attention and political capital on one thing, and that's criticising China over Xinjiang and Hong Kong,” said Marc Limon, executive director of the Universal Rights Group think tank in Geneva. “To an extent that's quite right because of the scale of what's happening in Xinjiang, and because the US is the only country that really has a hope of holding China to account. But it's become all-consuming. ”This polarisation between the two powers and their respective allies could jeopardise the body's work to promote and protect human rights worldwide.

“The Human Rights Council is the most bitterly divided I've ever seen,” said Limon. “[It] has almost turned into a China versus United States show, and the problem there is it's sucking the oxygen out of the rest of the council's important work and it's creating a very febrile atmosphere.”

Controversy over rights abusers. With 18 candidates running for 18 available seats, this year's election attracted criticism from rights groups for virtually guaranteeing seats for countries with tarnished human rights records such as Eritrea, Cameroon and the United Arab Emirates, who were elected alongside the US.

“The absence of competition in this year's Human Rights Council vote makes a mockery of the word 'election,'” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch, ahead of the vote. “Electing serious rights abusers like Cameroon, Eritrea, and the UAE sends a terrible signal that UN member states aren't serious about the council's fundamental mission to protect human rights.”

Although organisations such as Human Rights Watch called on UN member countries to refrain from voting for Cameroon, Eritrea, the UAE and other countries with dubious human rights records, only a handful of countries abstained from voting for each regional group.

“When countries like Eritrea get elected it has an incredibly negative impact on the authority and credibility of the Human Rights Council,” said Limon. “The council is supposed to be there to promote and protect the full enjoyment of human rights around the world [so] it's not great to have countries which themselves stand accused of gross and systematic violations as members of that body.”