US re-joins UN rights council, but voices concern over ‘focus on Israel’

The empty seat of United States during an urgent debate on 'systemic racism' at Human Rights Council in Geneva (File)

Middle East Eye  /  February 8, 2021 

The move reverses the Trump administration’s decision to pull Washington from council over its criticism of Israel.

The United States has re-joined the UN Human Rights Council, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced early on Monday, pledging to push for “reform” on the international body to “promote fundamental freedoms around the globe”.

The move comes more than two years after the administration of former President Donald Trump had withdrawn from the council, protesting what it called “chronic bias against Israel”.

Blinken also decried the UN Human Rights Council over its criticism of Israel in a statement announcing Washington’s return to the council in an “observer” capacity.

“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,” Blinken said.

“However, our withdrawal 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 return to the council is part of President Joe Biden’s plan to re-engage in international organisations and treaties abandoned by Trump.

“When it works well, the Human Rights Council shines a spotlight on countries with the worst human rights records and can serve as an important forum for those fighting injustice and tyranny,” Blinken said on Monday. 

“The Council can help to promote fundamental freedoms around the globe, including freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and religion or belief as well as the fundamental rights of women, girls, LGBTQI+ persons, and other marginalized communities.”

Blinken added that being on the table would help Washington address what he called the council’s “deficiencies”.

Last month, US envoy to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield echoed that rationale during her Senate confirmation hearing, saying that reengaging with international agencies would help Washington shield Israel from criticism internally.

“President Biden has indicated that we will run to re-join the Human Rights Council in Geneva because – again – when we’re at the table, there are fewer resolutions against Israel,” she said. 

“We can push back on human rights violators who want to be legitimised by sitting at the table. We can encourage our allies who are like-minded to join the Human Rights Commission. We can support their elections and we can work from inside to make the organisation better. If we’re on the outside, we have no voice.”

Criticising Israel

Founded in 2006 with the aim of “strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights”, the council consists of 47 countries elected to three-year terms by the UN General Assembly with quotas allocated to each continent.

The UN rights council has been criticised for the election of members with poor human rights records. But while pro-Israel US politicians complain that the council targets Israel, only a fraction of its dozens of resolutions last year focused on the Israeli government.

Palestinian rights advocates also say that Israel’s rare position, which constantly flaunts international law as an occupying power that transfers its civilian population into occupied territories, deserves more – not less – international scrutiny.

Over the past year, the UN Human Rights Council and experts under its mandate have denounced abuses in EgyptIranAlgeriaRussia and Saudi Arabia, amongst other places.

In fact, the investigation of UN expert Agnes Callamard into the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, which is often cited by US politicians, was mandated by the rights council.

On Monday, Blinken said the US administration will engage with the council in a “principled fashion”.

“We strongly believe that when the United States engages constructively with the Council, in concert with our allies and friends, positive change is within reach.”