The fight for human rights—long a goal that has animated U.S. foreign policy—has also been a core tenet of the UN’s mission since its inception.
The UN’s human rights work is multi-faceted and carried out by an array of entities. One of the most significant of these forums is the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), an intergovernmental body created with the sole purpose of upholding universal human rights. Composed of 47 Member States elected to three-year terms by the General Assembly, the Council passes resolutions on country-specific human rights situations, orders inquiries, holds special sessions to respond to human rights emergencies, and appoints independent experts. While the Council’s decisions are not legally-binding, they do carry important moral weight and are a tool for naming and shaming those who engage in gross and systematic human rights abuses.
Since the Council’s establishment in 2006, U.S. engagement has ebbed and flowed from Administration to Administration. In June 2018, the Trump Administration gave up the U.S.’s seat on the Council, accusing the body of ingrained anti-Israel bias and pointing out that some authoritarian states are members. In 2021, the Biden Administration successfully reversed this policy, running for and winning election to a three-year term on the Council in October. The U.S. took its seat on the Geneva-based body in January 2022.
While the UNHRC is flawed, the record is clear that when the U.S. is a member of the Council, it is far more effective in pushing for improvements in the Council’s record and pursuing its interests. For example, during the Obama Administration and the first 18 months of the Trump Administration—the last time that the U.S. was a member of the UNHRC and fully engaged in its work—the U.S. achieved success on several fronts.
- With regards to Israel, the proportion of country-specific resolutions concerning that country declined by 30 percent during U.S. membership versus the previous three-year period under the Bush Administration (2006-2009) when we were not a member. The number of special sessions devoted to Israel also fell considerably, from 6 during the first three years of the Council’s existence, to just 2 during the subsequent 8 years when the U.S. was engaged. Of note, Item 7—the feature of the Council’s permanent agenda that subjects Israel to unique scrutiny—came about in 2007, again at a time when the Bush Administration had decided to shun the Council.
- When resolutions targeting Israel under Agenda Item 7 did arise, fewer countries voted for them when the U.S. was a member of the Council. In March 2018, just three months before the Trump Administration withdrew, the Department of State itself reported that the Council saw “the largest shift in votes towards more abstentions and no votes on Israel related resolutions since” its creation.
U.S. diplomacy delivered results in a host of other areas as well. During the years when the U.S. was engaged, the Council deepened and broadened its repertoire, adopting a number of resolutions strongly supported by the U.S. on a range of pressing human rights issues. This trend has continued since the U.S. rejoined in January 2022.
- Most recently, on March 4, 2022, the Council held an urgent debate on the situation in Ukraine and voted 32-2, with 13 abstentions, to adopt a resolution establishing a Commission of Inquiry (COI) to investigate human rights violations and war crimes committed during the conflict. The COI is mandated to preserve evidence “for future legal proceedings” and “cooperate with other judicial and legal entities as appropriate”, which is significant given that the International Criminal Court has opened its own investigation into the conflict in Ukraine. In a further show of Russia’s growing international isolation, in April the General Assembly voted to suspend Russia’s membership on the UNHRC, marking the first time a permanent member of the Security Council had its membership in a UN body revoked.
- The Council established a COI on North Korea. In 2014, the COI released a groundbreaking report implicating the North Korean regime in a wide range of crimes against humanity. In response, OHCHR established a field office in Seoul, South Korea to continue to track rights violations in North Korea.
- In 2011, the Council first established a COI on Syria, which continues to assiduously document human rights violations carried out by all parties during the Syrian civil war, including the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies. The COI has helped gather evidence against specific individuals for their involvement in crimes against humanity–a “perpetrators list” to be shared with international judicial bodies.
- With U.S. engagement and support, the Council passed a historic resolution in 2016 establishing an independent expert focused on combating violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Through country visits, reports to the UN, and public statements, the mandate has catalyzed unprecedented global reporting on human rights challenges facing LGBTI individuals, including the criminalization of same-sex relationships, extrajudicial killings, and discrimination.
- The Special Rapporteur on Iran was first authorized by the Council in 2011, when the U.S. was a member. Through the Special Rapporteur’s monitoring and reporting activities, the UN has amassed a significant catalogue of human rights violations by the Iranian government, helping to raise public awareness of these abuses around the world and bolster efforts to pressure the regime.
By contrast, the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw from and defund the Council opened the door wider for authoritarian countries—including China—to expand their influence and challenge core international human rights norms.
- China in particular has become more aggressive in promoting a state-centric vision of human rights that is at odds with the UN’s founding principles: one that devalues minority rights, elevates “state sovereignty” over the rights of the individual, gives primacy to economic and social rights over crucial civil and political rights, and mutes criticism of individual countries’ human rights records, particularly its own. Sadly, it has found willing allies for these efforts in some cases. In 2019, for example, China was joined by 37 other countries in a statement at the Council extolling Beijing’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. Unfortunately, because the U.S. was on the outside looking in, our ability to push back against these efforts was severely limited, and a rival statement criticizing China’s treatment of ethnic Uighurs and calling for the Council to investigate the issue garnered just 22 signatories.
- In October 2021, several months before the U.S. rejoined the Council, Saudi Arabia successfully lobbied against a resolution reauthorizing the mandate of a group of experts investigating human rights violations committed by all sides of the conflict in Yemen. The group of experts, which was first created in 2017 with support from the U.S., was defeated by a narrow vote of 21-18. One observer quoted by The Guardian warned, “For the Saudis to win this battle at the expense of the Yemeni people is terrible. But it’s also a textbook case for other countries like Russia and China to torpedo any other investigation.”
Despite these challenges, during the U.S. absence the UNHRC was still able to do important work, often due to the diligent efforts of our allies and other likeminded countries on the Council. For example, the Council authorized unprecedented investigative mechanisms to scrutinize human rights abuses committed by the Venezuelan government against its own people and to collect, preserve, and analyze evidence of the Myanmar military’s genocide against Rohingya Muslims. More recently, in October 2021, a coalition of European and Latin American countries on the Council pushed past Chinese and Russian opposition to establish a special rapporteur and team of experts to investigate abuses committed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, as the Xinjiang and Yemen cases demonstrate, successes at the Council can be fleeting or threatened in the absence of strong U.S. engagement. As a result, to protect these and other achievements over the long-term, moderate the influence of authoritarian states over the Council’s work, and ensure that the UNHRC’s decisions reflect U.S. interests and values, a reinvigoration of U.S. leadership in Geneva is long overdue. For that reason, it is critical that the U.S. continue its current policy of reengagement with the UNHRC and make the most of its membership over the coming years.