Biden Set to Rejoin UN Human Rights Council, Which Trump Left Over 'anti-Israel Bias'

Under Trump, the U.S. had left the organization on grounds of being biased against Israel and inefficient

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, in February 2020.
The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, in February 2020.Credit: DENIS BALIBOUSE/ REUTERS
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON - The Biden administration is moving to "immediately and robustly reengage" with the United Nations Human Rights Council in another reversal of Trump foreign policies.

The U.S. withdrew in June 2018 after blaming the international organization of being biased against Israel, amongst other complaints about its role in the international community.

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"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. However, our withdrawal in June 2018 did nothing to encourage meaningful change, but instead created a vacuum of U.S. leadership, which countries with authoritarian agendas have used to their advantage," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday.

"To address the Council’s deficiencies and ensure it lives up to its mandate, the United States must be at the table using the full weight of our diplomatic leadership," he added.

Blinken noted that the U.S. would return to the council as an observer, where the U.S. will be able to address the council, participate in negotiations, and partner with others to introduce resolutions. U.S. officials told the Associated Press on Monday that the U.S. will consider eventually seeking election as a full member.

Nikki Haley receives applause at the AIPAC annual meeting in Washington D.C. in 2019.Credit: JIM WATSON / AFP

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Monday that "The U.S. mission today participated in a regular organizational meeting of the Council. For now, that engagement will be as an observer, which will allow us to speak in the council, participate in negotiations and work with partners."

He added, "As the secretary noted in his statement, we recognize the council's flaws, but we do believe that the best way to improve it is to work from within. When it performs as designed, the council can be a powerful tool to promote fundamental freedoms, protect the rights of women, girls, LGBTQI+ individuals and other marginalized communities while promoting accountability for human rights violators around the world."

Biden's nominee for UN envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield addressed the Biden administration's intent to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council during her confirmation hearings. "When we're at the table, there are fewer resolutions against Israel. If we're on the outside, we have no voice – whether it's UNESCO or funding to UNRWA, we need to be at the table to ensure that reforms that support our values are addressed and we push back on those who might not support our values," she said.

“Earlier this year, as it has in previous years, the Human Rights Council passed five resolutions against Israel — more than the number passed against North Korea, Iran and Syria combined,” former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said in a speech regarding the council. “This disproportionate focus and unending hostility toward Israel is clear proof that the council is motivated by political bias, not by human rights.”

In addition to the council’s persistent focus on Israel, the Trump administration took issue with the body’s membership, which currently includes China, Cuba, Eritrea, Russia and Venezuela, all of which have been accused of human rights abuses.

Last February, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (which acts as the secretariat of the UN Human Rights Council) released a long-anticipated report naming companies with ties to Israeli West Bank settlements. This prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call the UN Human Rights Council a "biased and insignificant body," adding that he had instructed to cut ties with the council, and that the U.S. government "made this step alongside us."

The UN Human Rights Council published the list after many debates and delays, and not as part of a decision to boycott or sanction these businesses. Rather, it was meant to be a transparent information database for the public. It was made public in accordance with international law and UN resolutions which have determined that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal.

The list followed a UN Security Council decision from 2016, which called on all UN member states to discern between the territory of the State of Israel and territories that were occupied in 1967. To back up this statement, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution in 2016 stating that it would devise a list of Israeli and international companies operating in settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The partial list was published despite pressure from the Trump administration and was expected to be updated in the future.

Trump’s withdrawal from the UNHRC, however, was one of a number of U.S. retrenchments from the international community during his four years in office. Since taking office last month, President Joe Biden has rejoined both the Paris accord and the WHO and has signaled interest in returning to the Iran deal as well as UNESCO.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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