In a statement issued Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the United States will return to the U.N. Human Rights Council. It’s an expected result of what President Joe Biden pledged in his inaugural address: “We can make America once again the leading force for good in the world.” It is just as well if the United States is a force for good in the world, sharing leadership with those governments that took up the slack when the Trump administration abandoned the field. Soon enough, the United States will have an opportunity to demonstrate exactly what this line means — how the United States will, as Biden put it later in his inaugural, “engage with the world once again.”
The Human Rights Council is the central human rights body of the U.N. system. In the United States, it has developed a reputation as a politicized body, with human rights abusers within its ranks and a disproportionate focus on Israel, to which Blinken alluded.
But the council is much more than its flaws. It has normative power in a number of ways: through its resolutions, through its Universal Periodic Review process of evaluating the human rights behaviors of all governments, via its appointment of independent experts through its Special Procedures system, and in its power to spotlight human rights abuses globally. In fact, on the same day the United States announced its intended return, the the United Kingdom and the European Union called for a special session of the council to address the coup in Myanmar. The council is flawed, yes, but nonetheless it has potential to shape global approaches to human rights crises worldwide.
Nikki Haley, President Donald Trump’s first ambassador to the U.N., announced the U.S. withdrawal from the council in 2018, giving up a seat the Obama administration had won two years earlier. The withdrawal was deeply political and a diplomatic self-own, limiting U.S. influence in Geneva.
The Biden administration in effect has announced a two-step process: first, a return to participation in council sessions as an observer; and second, the seeking of a formal seat on the 47-member council. The first was critical to announce in advance of the upcoming session of the council starting on Feb. 22. The second requires some work, since returning to a genuine leadership role within the council will require the United States to win election at the U.N. General Assembly to one of three open seats this fall (of those allocated to the Western Europe and Others Group, or WEOG). WEOG member governments will almost certainly encourage a U.S. return, but the candidacy is also an opportunity to articulate the kind of constructive participation the Biden administration has in mind.
A Strategic Approach
A strategic approach to the Human Rights Council could involve a number of elements.
First, of course, is membership. Once the United States makes formal its intention to seek a seat on the council – elected by the General Assembly – it should focus its attention on the so-called voluntary pledges that every government makes as part of its candidacy. (The U.S. pledges from 2016 may be found here.) That argues for a broader statement of U.S. human rights policy, one that – in keeping with recent statements from the new U.S. national security leadership – involves strong commitments to human rights globally and domestically.
In parallel to the U.S. candidacy, the administration may also think broadly about how to address the widespread cynicism about a council that includes a number of strongly anti-rights governments. It could work quietly to support a more rights-respecting council membership. Those leaving at the end of 2021 include Eritrea, Cameroon, Bahrain, and the Philippines, and it would be a victory if they were replaced with adherents to the global human rights framework.
Second, there is no avoiding confronting the role and record of China. In fact it should be a priority. The Chinese mission to the U.N. in Geneva has been taking an aggressive approach to the council in recent years, seeking to challenge Special Procedures, re-interpret fundamental rights, and limit the council’s normative power. The leadership in Beijing seeks to normalize its role, as indicated, for instance, by its membership on the council’s Consultative Group (which vets candidates for special rapporteurs and other independent expert mechanisms). There is some energy in Geneva behind confronting China, its record, and its efforts, and the U.S. Mission could add real power to that agenda.
Third, it will be important for U.S. policy to address both structural support and a critical review of the council. The United States should dust off Obama administration proposals to improve the council — not just its membership but broader structural improvements. As the U.N. heads toward a possible strategic review of the council over the next few years, the United States should begin to lay the groundwork for a rigorous and multi-stakeholder appraisal of how the council must change. In particular, the U.S. Mission in Geneva, working with other key missions and with civil society organizations focused on council institutions and mechanics, should help develop an agenda to improve and support Special Procedures, Universal Periodic Review, treaty bodies, and subsidiary and ad-hoc mechanisms such as the Forum on Business and Human Rights. A forward-looking and hard-nosed approach to the council, rooted in strong support for its mission, will generate significant good will among member States and civil society.
Fourth, the United States will need a programmatic agenda to guide its work on the council. The Biden administration statement today focused on the council as a tool for U.S. foreign policy. To be sure, the United States should play a role across the range of human rights crises, but particularly as it re-engages in Geneva in a serious way, conditions around the globe counsel a focused approach, one in which the United States identifies a set of priorities. In a recent article for Just Security, U.S. Representative Katie Porter and I proposed a set of principles to guide such a prioritization.
A Tool for Domestic Governance and Justice
At the heart of those priorities should be a commitment to rethinking how human rights can be a tool for domestic governance and justice. For decades, the United States has considered human rights almost entirely a foreign policy tool. That posture has been rooted in racism, a rejection of human rights’ relevance by segregationists at the dawn of the modern human rights movement. With former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice now leading the Domestic Policy Council, there is perhaps a real possibility for integrating the global into the domestic, and for making good on U.S. obligations under human rights law to implement those legal provisions at all levels of American governance.
On the council itself, some of the U.S. priorities may be regional and would thus track objectives reflected across State Department bureaus and the White House. To the extent priorities are programmatic, leading candidates may include a strong anti-racism agenda; an integration into U.S. policy of commitments to the kinds of rights embodied in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; a focus on gender and other marginalized groups worldwide; a counter-authoritarianism policy with the promotion of civic space and democratic reinforcement at its center; and digital rights, focused on confronting the Chinese model of control and censorship, developing efforts against the spread of private surveillance tools, and engaging in the business and human rights agenda more broadly.
Needless to say, the pandemic will loom large over all discussions at the council, both literally and figuratively. The United States should also consider how a health and human rights agenda at the council, linking up with efforts at the World Health Organization, could offer concrete support for global health initiatives at the heart of the pandemic.
The human rights system within the U.N. and beyond faces an extraordinary array of challenges. Luckily, the Biden administration enters the field with two major advantages. First, the State Department has genuine human rights and institutional expertise. It can draw on that expertise, in Washington and in missions worldwide, to pursue a human rights policy with global and domestic impact. Second, U.S. partners are eager to know how the Biden administration will not only distinguish itself from the past four years but engage in a way that acknowledges American limitations. It’s an opportunity for a different kind of American leadership.