Meeting the Moment: The U.S. and the UN in 2023

The UN Human Rights Council

The fight for human rights has been a core tenet of the UN’s mission since its inception. The UN’s human rights work is multifaceted and carried out by an array of entities, one of the most significant of which is the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). 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 emergencies, and appoints independent experts. While the Council’s decisions are not legally binding, they do carry important moral weight and can be used as a tool for naming and shaming human rights abusers.

Since the Council’s establishment in 2006, U.S. engagement has ebbed and flowed from administration to administration. In June 2018, the Trump Administration withdrew from the Council, accusing the body of anti-Israel bias and pointing out that some authoritarian states are members. In 2021, the Biden Administration reversed this policy, winning election to the Council in October. The U.S. took its seat in January 2022.

While the UNHRC is not perfect, history has shown that the U.S. is far more effective in improving the Council’s record when it is a member. For example, when the U.S. was fully engaged in the Council’s work from 2010 to 2018, it made progress on several fronts.

The proportion of country-specific resolutions targeting Israel declined by 30% during U.S. membership versus the previous three-year period under the Bush Administration (2006-2009) when the U.S. was not a member.

The number of special sessions devoted to Israel also fell considerably, from six during the first three years of the Council’s existence, to just two during the subsequent eight years when the U.S. was engaged. Of special note, Item 7 of the Council’s permanent agenda, which subjects Israel to unique scrutiny, came about in 2007, again when the U.S. had decided to shun the Council.

When resolutions targeting Israel under Agenda Item 7 did come up, fewer countries voted for them when the U.S. was a member of the Council.

In March 2018, just three months before the U.S. resigned its seat, the State Department itself reported “the largest shift in votes towards more abstentions and no votes on Israel-related resolutions since” the Council’s creation.

During the years when the U.S. was engaged, the Council deepened and broadened its repertoire, adopting resolutions strongly supported by the U.S. on a range of pressing human rights issues.

This included the creation of groundbreaking Commissions of Inquiry (COIs) to investigate human rights violations in Syria and North Korea, the establishment of a special rapporteur to monitor the human rights situation in Iran, and the authorization of the first-of-its-kind independent expert focused on combating violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Since returning to the Council at the beginning of 2022, the U.S. has built on this prior record of successful engagement, working with allies and other like-minded countries to notch wins on a broad range of country-specific human rights priorities. Several of these are discussed in greater detail below.


Within days of Russia’s unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, the UNHRC met in emergency session and overwhelmingly adopted a U.S.-supported resolution establishing a COI to investigate war crimes committed during the conflict and preserve evidence “for future legal proceedings.” The vote was 32-2, with 13 abstentions, highlighting Russia’s international isolation. In September 2022, the COI presented the Council with its most extensive evidence of war crimes to date, detailing indiscriminate attacks on civilians, executions, torture, gender-based violence, and other acts committed by Russian forces in the Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Sumy regions. The COI’s work could ultimately aid efforts by the International Criminal Court and other judicial bodies to prosecute those who perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity during the conflict.


The UN’s reaction to the war in Ukraine extended beyond the creation of the COI. In a vote on April 7, 2022, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly 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. In October 2022, the Council turned its attention to human rights violations inside Russia itself, approving a resolution sponsored by the European Union to establish a special rapporteur to investigate arbitrary arrests, crackdowns on civil society and independent media, limitations on freedom of speech and assembly, and other abuses committed by the Russian government against its own citizens. This is the first time since the Council’s creation in 2006 that it has authorized a special rapporteur to look specifically into the human rights record of a permanent member of the Security Council, marking a milestone in Russia’s international isolation.


On October 7, 2022, the UNHRC voted to adopt a U.S.-supported resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela—an entity established in 2019 to assess the human rights situation in the country—for an additional two years. Prior to the Council’s vote, the mission released a hard-hitting report which concluded that “President Nicolás Maduro, supported by other high-level authorities, stand out as the main architects in the design, implementation and maintenance of a machinery with the purpose of repressing dissent.” Enderson Sequera, a Venezuelan political analyst, called it “the most blunt report when it comes to pinpointing who’s responsible” for torture, arbitrary detention, murder, and other serious human rights violations in Venezuela.

Following the UNHRC vote in October, Venezuela was defeated in the UN General Assembly for reelection to a seat on the Council, having been narrowly elected to the body in 2019. Venezuela’s ejection from the Council and its replacement by Chile and Costa Rica—two democracies with good human rights records—was a positive development for the work of the UNHRC and a further testament to the international community’s disapproval of the Maduro government’s human rights record.


The human rights situation in Nicaragua has deteriorated significantly in recent years, as President Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista political party have violently suppressed dissent, shuttered independent media, and carried out fraudulent presidential elections in 2021. In response, the UNHRC adopted a U.S.-supported resolution in March 2022 establishing a group of three human rights experts with a mandate to conduct thorough and independent investigations into all alleged human rights violations committed in Nicaragua since April 2018. By training a UN-sponsored spotlight on Nicaragua, the UNHRC’s action deepened the Ortega government’s international isolation and ensured that efforts to demand accountability for its violations of human rights will remain on the international community’s agenda.


The fall of Afghanistan’s internationally recognized government in August 2021 raised urgent concerns about the Taliban’s commitment to basic human rights norms. Shortly after the takeover, the UNHRC voted overwhelmingly to establish a special rapporteur on Afghanistan, a position that was renewed by the Council with strong U.S. support in October 2022. Charged with investigating human rights abuses in Afghanistan, the special rapporteur was tasked by the Council in its 2022 renewal resolution with placing particular emphasis on violations of the rights of women and children, an especially important area of concern given the Taliban’s ban on secondary and university education for girls and women.


Following the death of Mahsa Amini while in custody of Iran’s morality police in September 2022, mass anti-government demonstrations broke out across the country. Iranian security services responded violently, killing hundreds of protesters and jailing thousands. In an emergency session convened in November to discuss the situation, the UNHRC adopted a resolution condemning the crackdown and establishing a fact-finding mission to investigate rights violations committed by Iranian authorities, “especially with respect to women and children.” Canada’s Ambassador to the UN called the resolution, adopted by a vote of 25-6, “a big breakthrough” and noted that “you’re going to have some very professional people collecting evidence, collecting data, and beginning to gather the material that we need to deal with the extent of all of the human rights abuses that we know are taking place in Iran.”

The U.S. is scheduled to remain on the Council through the end of 2024, when it will be eligible to run for another term. Over the next several years, the Council will continue to grapple with an array of human rights challenges, likely including ongoing fallout from the war in Ukraine, the civil war in Syria, government repression in Iran and Afghanistan, and threats to fundamental international human rights norms in numerous other contexts. As these discussions move forward, it will be critical for the U.S. to remain at the table, leveraging a policy of principled engagement to advance its own interests and ensure that the Council continues to fulfill its responsibility to human rights defenders around the world.