The United States on Thursday regained a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, which the Trump administration abandoned in 2018 because of what it called the body’s hypocrisy and anti-Israel prejudice.
In seeking to rejoin the 47-member council, the Biden administration, which has taken a far more supportive stance toward the United Nations than its predecessor, argued that American interests would be better served if the United States were a member seeking change from within.
The United States won a three-year term for one of 18 open seats on the council, starting in January, in a vote by the 193-member General Assembly.
Based in Geneva, the council is regarded as the world’s most important human rights body. While it has no criminal enforcement or sanctioning powers, the council can undertake investigations that help shape the global image of countries. It can also exert influence on their behavior if they are deemed to have poor rights records.
But the council has a wide array of critics who argue that many of its elected members are human-rights abusers themselves, pointing to examples like China, Russia, Cuba and Venezuela. The presence of such countries on the council, critics say, undercuts the legitimacy of its work.
Many also object to a permanent item on the council’s agenda concerning rights abuses in the Palestinian territories, which has become the basis for its numerous resolutions condemning Israel.
The Biden administration’s success at rejoining the council may now bring about a test of its stated goal of strengthening America’s human-rights advocacy around the world. Many conservative Republicans opposed rejoining, and there is no guarantee that the United States will not withdraw from the council again, should a Republican win the White House back in 2024.
“The Council provides a forum where we can have open discussions about ways we and our partners can improve,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who announced the intent to rejoin the council in February, said Thursday after the election results.
“At the same time, it also suffers from serious flaws, including disproportionate attention on Israel and the membership of several states with egregious human rights records,” he said. “Together, we must push back against attempts to subvert the ideals upon which the Human Rights Council was founded.”
As if to underscore the challenges cited by Mr. Blinken, several countries with poor or questionable human-rights records also won seats on the council on Thursday, among them Cameroon, Eritrea, the United Arab Emirates and Honduras.
With its return to the Human Rights Council, the Biden administration further reversed its predecessor’s moves toward American isolationism.
President Biden has revived U.S. membership in the World Health Organization, re-entered the Paris climate accord and restored funding to U.N. agencies that had been cut. Those agencies include the United Nations Population Fund, a leading supplier of maternal health and family planning services, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinians classified as refugees.
Despite the revived U.S. engagement, diplomats and rights groups in Geneva did not foresee an easy return to the kind of influence wielded by the United States at the Human Rights Council during President Barack Obama’s tenure.
The United States faces a more assertive China that is pushing back aggressively at criticism of its repression in the Xinjiang region and is pressuring economically vulnerable countries into supporting initiatives that shift attention away from civil and political rights.
The United States, by contrast, is short of diplomatic staff in Geneva to promote its human rights agenda. President Biden’s chosen ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva is still awaiting congressional confirmation, and he has yet to nominate an ambassador to the Human Rights Council.
Under the voting system for open seats in the Human Rights Council, slates of candidates are divided into five geographic regions, and any member of the General Assembly is eligible to run except those completing two consecutive terms on the council. Voting is by secret ballot. A simple majority of 97 votes is needed to win. In cases where the number of candidates exceeds the number of open seats, the biggest vote-getter wins.
This year, however, the number of candidates from each region equaled the number of that region’s open seats, meaning none of the seats were contested. Rights groups outside the United Nations called that part of the problem.
“The absence of competition in this year’s Human Rights Council vote makes a mockery of the word ‘election,’” Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement ahead of the vote. “Electing serious rights abusers like Cameroon, Eritrea and the U.A.E. sends a terrible signal that U.N. member states aren’t serious about the council’s fundamental mission to protect human rights.”
The other newly elected or re-elected members included Gambia, Benin and Somalia from the African group; Qatar, Kazakhstan, India and Malaysia from the Asian group; Argentina and Paraguay from the Latin America and Caribbean group; Luxembourg and Finland from the Western group; and Lithuania and Montenegro from the Eastern Europe group.
Nick Cumming-Bruce contributed reporting from Geneva, and Lara Jakes from Washington.