The US announced plans Monday to re-engage with the United Nations human rights council (UNHRC), from which Donald Trump withdrew almost three years ago, as the Biden administration reverses another move away from multilateral organizations and agreements.
Announcing the new approach from Washington, the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said the pullout in June 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”.
“The Biden administration has recommitted the United States to a foreign policy centered on democracy, human rights, and equality,” he said. “Effective use of multilateral tools is an important element of that vision.”
The decision is likely to draw criticism from conservatives and pro-Israel voices, who have derided the council and echoed Trump administration complaints that it was too quick to overlook abuses by autocratic regimes and governments – and even accept them as members.
Blinken said Joe Biden had instructed the state department to “re-engage immediately and robustly” with the council, but he acknowledged it still needs work.
“We recognize 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,” he said.
Blinken said the council, when it works well, “shines a spotlight on countries with the worst human rights records and can serve as an important forum for those fighting injustice and tyranny”.
“To address the council’s deficiencies and ensure it lives up to its mandate, the United States must be at the table using the full weight of our diplomatic leadership,” he added.
Israel has received by far the largest number of critical council resolutions. Trump also pulled the US out because the council failed to meet an extensive list of reforms demanded by then US UN ambassador Nikki Haley.
The Trump administration took issue with the body’s membership, which currently includes China, Cuba, Eritrea, Russia and Venezuela, all of which have been accused of human rights abuses.
Hillel Neuer, executive director of advocacy group UN Watch, which often decries the council’s excessive focus on Israel, said the Obama administration had had a “tendency to become a cheerleader for the council” – and called on the Biden team to avoid it, and instead call out the council’s “abuses”.
“The cost of the US decision to rejoin is that it gives legitimacy to a council where tyrannies and other non-democracies now comprise 60% of the membership,” Neuer said. “In exchange, the US must demand serious reform, removing despots from the council such as Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro regime, holding dictators to account, and removing the agenda item that targets Israel in each session, the only one to focus on a single country.”
The council’s next session – the first of three each year, and the only one to feature a “high-level segment” that often lures top diplomats – runs from 22 February to 23 March. Although the US will have only nonvoting observer status for now, US officials say the administration intends to seek one of the three full-member seats left vacant when the current terms of Austria, Denmark and Italy expire at the end of 2021.
The UN general assembly makes the final choice in a vote that generally takes place in October every year to fill vacancies in three-year terms at the 47-member council.
US engagement with the council and its predecessor, the UN Human Rights Commission, has been something of a political football between Republican and Democratic administrations. While recognizing its shortcomings, Democratic presidents have tended to want a seat at the table while Republicans have recoiled at its criticism of Israel.
Trump’s withdrawal from the UNHRC, however, was one of a number of US retrenchments from the international community during his four years in office. He also walked away from the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN education and cultural organization, Unesco, and several arms control treaties.
Trump also threatened to withdraw from the International Postal Union and frequently hinted at pulling out of the World Trade Organization.
Since taking office last month, Biden has rejoined both the Paris accord and the WHO and has signaled interest in returning to the Iran deal as well as Unesco.