March 1, 2021 | Newsweek

The UN Should Protect Human Rights, Not Human Rights Abusers

March 1, 2021 | Newsweek

The UN Should Protect Human Rights, Not Human Rights Abusers

Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Wednesday that the United States will seek membership at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in January 2022 as part of the Biden administration’s commitment to “putting human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.”

To be sure, the United States is at its best when it strives to model human rights at home and stand up for those principles abroad. And when Washington leads and assembles like-minded countries to advance international human rights together, we are more likely to succeed.

Accordingly, it would seem to be an easy decision for the United States to join the UNHRC. But that is not necessarily the case. To understand why, it is worth considering what the UNHRC has become.

The UNHRC certainly includes countries and individuals of good faith who are dedicated, sincere advocates for human rights. Unfortunately, they have allowed it to be increasingly coopted by countries that do not share a genuine commitment to human rights.

To escape unwanted attention or consequences for their illicit activities, criminal syndicates may attempt to control the local police department. That is not unlike what happens today at the UNHRC. The world’s worst human rights abusers, such as China, have sought membership on the UNHRC to shield and enable their own egregious human rights abuses, seeking to shift attention elsewhere.

Take a moment to let that sink in. China has detained upwards of a million Uighur Muslims in what Blinken himself has described as a “genocide.” China has violently suppressed pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and continues to occupy Tibet. Yet China sits on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

If the Biden administration is successful in gaining membership at the UNHRC in 2022, China is not the only authoritarian human rights abuser the U.S. delegation will find around the UNHRC table.

Russia will be there, too. Yes, that Russia. The one that has cracked down on freedom of expression while poisoning and imprisoning opposition leader Alexei Navalny for having the temerity to stand up to Vladimir Putin‘s corruption and authoritarianism.

And Beijing and Moscow are not the only systematic abusers of human rights who have discovered the value of UNHRC membership.

Freedom House conducts an annual report assessing political rights and civil liberties in countries around the world. Nearly 60 percent of the UNHRC’s current members are ranked by Freedom House as “not free” or “partly free.” Admittedly, Cuba and Venezuela—both members of UNHRC—don’t help the average.

If we are being honest, despite some notable exceptions, the UNHRC has started to resemble a human rights abuser convention—making the denizens of the Star Wars cantina look like Cub Scouts by comparison.

Countries such as China, Russia and Cuba join to divert attention elsewhere and ensure their own human rights violations are ignored. They do so by creating false moral equivalencies and targeting countries with far superior records on human rights.

Israel has been a primary victim of this strategy.

The UNHRC has passed roughly an equal number of resolutions condemning Israel as the rest of the world combined. The council’s standing agenda item to scrutinize the country’s human rights record—a special attention paid only to Israel—contributes to this imbalance. The UNHRC also sustains a special rapporteur whose mandate calls to investigate only Israel.

So where does that leave us? Great-power competition is happening everywhere—including at the UNHRC. If the United States vacates that field of competition, its authoritarian adversaries will fill the vacuum, call the shots and create an international order more hostile to human rights and American interests.

At the same time, we don’t want to provide resources and credibility to an organization that authoritarian regimes use to shield their worst human rights abuses and cynically divert attention to others.

That is the dilemma America confronts at the UNHRC.

The Biden administration hopes that American involvement at the UNHRC can help steer the corrupted body in the right direction. Yet the collapse of the UNHRC’s predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights, should serve as a cautionary tale. The United Nations replaced the former human rights body, which was dominated by human rights abusers and demonstrated an obsession for excoriating Israel.

Does that sound familiar?

As our colleague Richard Goldberg notes, U.S. membership from 2009 until 2018 did not help address these fundamental UNHRC maladies.

Regardless, with the best of intentions, the Biden administration seems determined to rejoin the UNHRC. Since membership is a means to an end, not an end in itself, what should be the metrics of success by which we can judge the Biden administration’s efforts?

What about working to establish minimum common-sense standards for who can be a member of the UNHRC? The mere suggestion will surely elicit reflexive eye rolls among many UN watchers.

But is it really such a horrible idea to suggest that countries engaged in grave and ongoing crimes against humanity (such as the Chinese Communist Party’s atrocities in Xinjiang) should not sit on the UNHRC? Is there nothing that a country could do that would warrant barring or evicting it from the UNHRC?

If countries can engage in the worst human rights abuses imaginable and still achieve or retain membership, it says much about the state of the UNHRC—and any hope for real reform.

Here’s another metric that could be used to measure any Biden administration effort to reengage at the UNHRC: Can the U.S. delegation convince the UNHRC to treat Israel more equitably?

Perhaps some of the time previously spent on Israel could be used to help the Uighurs detained in concentration camps in Xinjiang. European allies willing to put principle before profit might want to partner with the U.S. delegation on this effort. And perhaps Muslim-majority countries might want to team up to help fellow Muslims confronting atrocities that our grandchildren will read about decades from now.

Americans rightly want to honor our principles, advance human rights and not vacate key fields of competition with China. But we also don’t want to inadvertently aid and abet an enterprise that often undermines the goals it was established to advance.

In his announcement, Blinken touted the administration’s commitment “to a world in which human rights are protected, their defenders are celebrated and those who commit human rights abuses are held accountable.” The problem is that the international organization charged with leading that effort frequently does exactly the opposite.

Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where David May is a research analyst. Follow them on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman and @DavidSamuelMay. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.  

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China International Organizations Israel Military and Political Power Russia