The US plays its credibility at the UN Human Rights Council

The UN Human Rights Council holds its 49th session in Geneva from February 28 until April 1. Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi

After four years, the United States is back as a member of the Human Rights Council. They say they want to counter authoritarian regimes and hold rights abusers to account. Will they do so impartially?

This content was published on February 28, 2022 - 17:00

The United States returns this month as a member of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). The US left the Geneva-based inter-governmental forum in 2018 under the administration of former US president Donald Trump. US officials at the time cited the council’s “chronic bias against Israel” and the questionable human rights records of some of its members as reasons for leaving.

Now the US is back. It returned with observer status last year and was elected to serve a three-year term as a member on the council starting in 2022.

“The US government has enormous diplomatic clout, which can make a big difference. If it deploys its army of diplomats to rally support for resolutions, that can help them pass,” says Kenneth Roth, executive director of NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW).

But making a difference will depend on the commitment of the administration of US president Joe Biden to protect and promote human rights.

Phil Lynch, director of the NGO International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) hopes the US will refrain from approaching issues through a political or ideological lens. “We would hope and expect that the US would deal with human rights situations, primarily having regard to their human rights merits and applying objective criteria, such as the gravity and severity of the issues,” he says.

Biden has repeatedly said that human rights would be at the centre of US foreign policy. As an observer on the council, the US could take part in the proceedings but could not vote. Its membership on the council will therefore be a test of its stated commitment.

Pressing allies

“The test is going to be, what does the Biden administration do when its friends are human rights violators,” says Roth. According to him, how the US decides to engage on the rights situations in, for example, Yemen or Egypt will be particularly revealing.

Since 2014, a civil war in Yemen between rebel Houthi forces supported by Iran, and government forces backed by Saudi Arabia has produced, human rights experts say, evidence of serious human rights violations, among them war crimes and crimes against humanity. The HRC passed a resolution in 2017 establishing a group of experts to investigate violations of international law by all parties to the conflict. But in 2021, the council voted against renewing the group’s mandate.

Roth says Saudi Arabia used a combination of “threats and enticements” behind the scenes to lift the scrutiny the HRC had established over Yemen. The move, Roth believes, set a bad precedent in terms of credibility for the council and had a devastating effect on the ground, where civilian casualties surged. Whether the US moves to renew comparably tough scrutiny over Yemen despite the opposition of Saudi Arabia – a US ally – will be a test of the US’ commitment to protect and promote human rights.

Signs suggest the US might be willing to press some of its allies on human rights. In January, the Biden administration withheld $130 million of military assistance to Egypt over human rights concerns, though in the same week it approved the sale of military equipment to a value of $2.5 billion. “A step in the right direction, but a modest step,” says Roth.

Egypt has been criticised by rights organisations for its repression of dissent under the leadership of president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The HRC has never adopted a critical resolution on Egypt.

Vacuum… and China

In an address marking the US’ decision to reengage with the council, US secretary of state Antony Blinken said that Washington’s withdrawal in 2018 “did nothing to encourage meaningful change, but instead created a vacuum of US leadership, which countries with authoritarian agendas have used to their advantage.”

Lynch argues there is truth to this assessment. “China used the absence of the US as an opportunity to accelerate its efforts to rewrite standards of international human rights law, and to co-opt and instrumentalise the international human rights system to pursue the aims and the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party.”

One such effort was a China-led resolution to promote “mutually beneficial cooperation” in the field of human rights. The resolution was adopted by the council in 2020. China put forward an initial resolution on the topic which was adopted in 2018.

Rights groups criticise the move, which they argue re-focuses the council’s work on vaguely defined notions of dialogue and cooperation at the cost of accountability. According to them, the result of the 2020 vote – 23 in favour, 16 against, and 8 abstentions – highlights the divisive nature of the initiative, and the fact that council members are now more aware of China’s strategy. By contrast, the initial 2018 resolution was adopted 28-1 with only the US voting against. 17 countries abstained, many of them European.

But while EU countries voted against the 2020 resolution, many African states voted in favour. Rights groups argue China has used its Belt and Road initiative to secure UN votes among developing nations.

But Roth says there are limits to China’s influence. He points to the way a 2021 China-led resolution on colonialism, targeting the West, backfired when two British amendments on persecution and forced assimilation (which could equally apply to some of China’s tactics towards its own population) were narrowly adopted. In 2021, China withdrew another resolution on “realising a better life for everyone” for fears it would not pass.

Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, is expected to release a long-awaited report on alleged rights violations in China’s Xinjiang region. The UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) announced last December that the report would be released within weeks, but it has since been delayed further. Human Rights Watch has called for the report to be released in time for the HRC session.

“Once the report is finally out, there will be a new effort to address Xinjiang at the Human Rights Council. […] The question is: will the Biden administration make the effort, particularly outside the West, to rally support for what would be the first ever, long-awaited resolution on Xinjiang,” says Roth. HRC members have never put forward a resolution addressing alleged abuses in China.

Rights groups accuse China of abuses against Uyghur and other minority groups that include torture and forced labour, but China rejects such allegations.

Lynch says states (including of course the United States) willing to counter China’s growing influence will themselves need to adopt a principled, objective, non-selective approach to human rights and country situations. “I think any efforts to counter the Chinese narrative and strategy that are motivated primarily by political or ideological concerns rather than human rights are likely to fail.”

“Disproportionate attention on Israel”

At the Human Rights Council last year, Blinken called for similar reforms to those the Trump administration had sought to implement. Those include eliminating Agenda Item 7 – on the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories – and improving the council’s membership.

Agenda Item 7 mandates the council to discuss rights abuses linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at each of its sessions. No other country situation has a dedicated agenda item.

Roth is doubtful that this particular reform is the right approach for the US. “Right now, that just looks like they’re protecting Israel. To make that a principled effort, they should be vigorously supporting resolutions on Israel that come up through other agenda items. If the US feels there are too many resolutions, they could introduce a single, strong consolidated resolution.”

However, rights groups agree that the council’s membership could be improved.

The 47 members of the council are elected by a majority of the 193 member states at the General Assembly. Seats on the council are distributed equitably between geographical groups. Key factors for their election are supposed to include their contribution to the promotion of human rights and their pledged commitment to uphold high standards.

But regional groups have put forward so-called closed slates (e.g. three candidates for three vacant seats within a region) which has allowed countries with dubious rights records to gain membership.

“The US is not in a great position to press that reform because it just benefited from a closed slate. […] It is going to take an agreement among all the regions to stop doing it. The US could lead that effort, but any desire to talk about improving the membership without addressing this fundamental problem is likely to fall short,” says Roth.

Power politics

“It’s quite interesting to see that with the return of the US, we now have a situation where all the P5 are also members of the Human Rights Council. And that of course, shows the importance big powers are giving to the council,” says Felix Kirchmeier, executive director of the Geneva Human Rights Platform (GHRP).

The P5 are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States). They each have the power to veto resolutions at the Security Council which shields them and their allies from UN action – such as sanctions and referrals to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

No member of the Human Rights Council has power of veto, but HRC resolutions are not binding and need to be implemented by countries themselves. Debates have in the past – e.g. in the context of the Syrian conflict – shifted from a locked Security Council to the HRC.

If having the P5 powers on the HRC could, in principle, give more weight to human rights concerns, Kirchmeier says that given the current geopolitical context, “we’re pretty sure to see the HRC become a spill-over venue again for debates blocked in the Security Council.” According to him, political posturing on security considerations at the HRC could undermine human rights discussions.

The Human Rights Council will hold an urgent debate in Geneva on Thursday to address the deteriorating rights situation in Ukraine following Russia’s attack. Twenty-nine of the 47 council members voted on Monday in favour of the meeting.

Lynch insists political considerations must be set aside if the HRC is to fulfil its mandate.

“A challenge will be to avoid playing a political game which feeds into politicisation, polarisation and ultimately delegitimization of the Human Rights Council, and instead play a human rights game. That’s the key challenge, and I think the basis upon which the success of the US return will be judged.”

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