June 30, 2021 | International Organizations Monograph

United Nations Human Rights Council

June 30, 2021 | International Organizations Monograph

United Nations Human Rights Council


The UN General Assembly (UNGA) established the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights, which the UN Economic and Social Council created in 1946. The UNGA disbanded the commission due to the prevalence of human rights abusers among its member states.

The UNHRC has a rotating membership of 47 states, which each serve for three years upon election by a simple majority of the UNGA. The UNGA votes by secret ballot, leaving no record of which states supported the candidacies of China, Russia, or other human rights abusers.

Every five years, the UNHRC’s Universal Periodic Review assesses the human rights records of UN member states. The UNHRC also institutes what it describes as “Special Procedures,” which consist of “special rapporteurs, special representatives, independent experts and working groups that monitor, examine, advise and publicly report on thematic issues or human rights situations in specific countries.”1 The UNHRC meets at least three times per year in Geneva, Switzerland, though it may convene additional meetings to address human rights emergencies if one-third of its members agree.

The Trump administration withdrew from the UNHRC in 2018, citing the council’s anti-Israel bias and failure “to prevent the world’s worst human rights abusers from gaining … membership.”2 The Biden administration returned to the council as an observer in February 2021 and pledged to seek election to the council in January 2022.3


Like its predecessor, the UNHRC has become a club for the world’s worst dictatorships, including China, Cuba, Libya, Mauritania, Pakistan, Russia, and Venezuela. These countries advance a culture of impunity for repressive regimes. At the same time, the council has devoted a disproportionate amount of its time and resources to condemning Israel. The UNHRC has passed roughly an equal number of resolutions condemning Israel as it has for the rest of the world combined.4 Meanwhile, by evaluating liberal democracies and repressive regimes in tandem, the UNHRC’s Universal Periodic Review perpetuates a moral equivalency between human rights gold standards and abusers.5

The case of China provides a grim example of the UNHRC’s failures. Thanks to deft coalition building with other serial abusers as well as economic and political coercion against potential detractors, Beijing has stymied efforts to hold China accountable for grave human rights violations. These include the detention of more than a million Uighur Muslims in concentration camps,6 violent crackdowns on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and Tibet in 2019–2021,7 and the suppression of information at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.8

In 2020, China warned UN delegations that statements questioning its human rights record could have economic and political consequences.9 Beijing also worked with Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela to issue statements in support of China’s crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.10 Many of the African nations that joined these statements were in the process of negotiating debt repayments with China.11

The success of China and other abusers in winning election to the UNHRC stems from the use of secret ballots and the UNGA’s allocation of candidacies on a regional basis to ensure even representation. In many cases, UNHRC elections are not competitive. In 2020, for example, Cuba and Russia ran unopposed in their regions. China, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia competed with Nepal and Uzbekistan for four seats representing Asia and the Pacific, with Saudi Arabia ultimately falling short.12

In 2020, the UNHRC’s Asian group appointed China to the council’s Consultative Group.13 The Consultative Group consists of five ambassadors and facilitates the appointment of human rights experts on issues such as freedom of speech and religion; housing; public health; and water and sanitation. It also appoints individuals to monitor human rights conditions in countries such as Cambodia, Iran, Burma, and North Korea, all of which maintain close diplomatic ties with Beijing.

As early as 2013, a whistleblower named Emma Reilly accused the UNHRC of providing Beijing with the identities of Chinese dissidents who submit human rights complaints.14

Meanwhile, the UNHRC has held Israel to a double standard. The council’s Agenda Item 7 requires an assessment of Israel’s human rights record at every session, a burden no other country bears, violating the UNHRC’s commitment to non-selectivity.15 The Jewish state’s military responses to terrorist attacks often underpin alleged human rights abuses. Agenda Item 7 resolutions and reports ignore and minimize these threats, in stark contrast to balanced assessments such as the U.S. State Department’s country reports on human rights practices in Israel.16

The UNHRC also maintains a special rapporteur with an open-ended mandate solely to investigate Israel.17 Strident anti-Israel activists have repeatedly filled this position.18 Additionally, the council has established multiple Israel-focused commissions of inquiry, most notably after Israeli-Palestinian conflicts in 2009 and 2014. These commissions have presumed Israeli guilt and employed investigators with conflicts of interest.19 Following the Israel-Hamas conflict in May 2021, the UNHRC held a special session in which it approved the council’s first ongoing commission of inquiry.20

In March 2016, the UNHRC called on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to compile a database of companies operating in “Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan.”21 The high commissioner, without providing evidence that listed companies had done anything illegal, released a database in February 2020 that now serves as a resource for anti-Israel boycott activists.22


The UNHRC needs structural reform to purge the influence of repressive regimes. As the Biden administration re-engages the council in the hope of enacting reform, it should keep in mind the failures of its predecessors. When the Obama administration announced in 2009 that the United States would seek election to the UNHRC, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that America “will engage in the work of improving the UN human rights system.”23 The Trump administration made a similar commitment and launched a reform campaign before its 2018 withdrawal.24 In both cases, nothing changed. The Biden administration and Congress should condition U.S. support for the UNHRC, including U.S. participation in the Universal Periodic Review, on the following changes:

  • Require open ballots for UNHRC elections. Forcing UNGA members to publicize their votes could dissuade them from casting votes for abusers, thereby introducing accountability in the UN human rights infrastructure.
  • Require that potential UNHRC members receive a “free” ranking in Freedom House’s Global Freedom Scores. Countries ranked “partly free” or “not free” should be ineligible for membership.25
  • Launch an independent U.S. investigation into whistleblower complaints alleging that the UNHRC provides names of Chinese dissidents to Beijing. This practice must end, those responsible should be held accountable, and the whistleblowers should be protected from retaliation.
  • Remove Agenda Item 7. The UNHRC should address all such resolutions under Agenda Item 4, the agenda item for every other human rights situation on the planet. 
  • Drastically alter, if not eliminate, the position of special rapporteur to investigate alleged Israeli abuses. If kept in place, the rapporteur’s mandate should expand to investigate crimes committed by Palestinian groups, especially terrorist organizations. Either way, the rapporteur’s open-ended mandate should be subject to periodic review, like that of all other UNHRC special rapporteurs.26
  • Eliminate the 2016 blacklist. This deeply flawed list targets companies for generic business activities and protecting Israeli lives. The list makes no claim that the companies are acting illegally, but it serves as a resource for anti-Israel activists.27

  1. UN Human Rights Council, “Welcome to the Human Rights Council,” accessed May 26, 2021. (https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/Pages/AboutCouncil.aspx)
  2. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Nikki Haley, U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Geneva, “Remarks on the UN Human Rights Council,” June 19, 2018. (https://geneva.usmission.gov/2018/06/21/remarks-on-the-un-human-rights-council)
  3. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, U.S. Department of State, Press Statement, “Putting Human Rights at the Center of U.S. Foreign Policy,” February 24, 2021. (https://www.state.gov/putting-human-rights-at-the-center-of-u-s-foreign-policy)
  4. @HillelNeuer, “UNHRC Condemnations, 2006-2021: North Korea 13 Zimbabwe 0 Venezuela 2 Pakistan 0 Somalia 0 Belarus 11 Eritrea 0 Israel 90 Turkey 0 Russia 0 Sudan 0 Syria 35 China 0 Saudi 0 Qatar 0 Iran 10 Iraq 0,” Twitter, February 8, 2021. (https://twitter.com/HillelNeuer/status/1358736827054780417)
  5. David May and Morgan Lorraine Viña, “How Politics Has Poisoned the United Nations,” The National Interest, March 17, 2021. (https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/how-politics-has-poisoned-united-nations-180356)
  6. Stephanie Nebehay, “U.N. says it has credible reports that China holds million Uighurs in secret camps,” Reuters, August 10, 2018. (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-rights-un/u-n-says-it-has-credible-reports-that-china-holds-million-uighurs-in-secret-camps-idUSKBN1KV1SU)
  7. Joyu Wang, “Hong Kong Security Law: How Beijing Is Cracking Down,” The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2021. (https://www.wsj.com/articles/hong-kong-national-security-law-11605104896); Kate Saunders, “China’s Hidden Crackdown in Tibet,” The Diplomat, April 22, 2020. (https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/chinas-hidden-crackdown-in-tibet)
  8. Jeremy Page, Betsy McKay, and Drew Hinshaw, “How the WHO’s Hunt for Covid’s Origins Stumbled in China,” The Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2021. (https://www.wsj.com/articles/who-china-hunt-covid-origins-11616004512)
  9. “39 countries condemn China over policies in Xinjiang, Hong Kong,” Al Jazeera (Qatar), October 7, 2020. (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/7/germany-leads-charge-against-china-on-rights-abuses)
  10. Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations Office at Geneva and Other International Organizations in Switzerland, “Joint Statement delivered by Permanent Mission of Cuba at the 44th session of Human Rights Council,” June 30, 2020. (http://www.china-un.ch/eng/hom/t1793804.htm)
  11. Dave Lawler, “Countries that criticized or defended China’s security law for Hong Kong at the UN,” Axios, July 3, 2020. (https://www.axios.com/countries-supporting-china-hong-kong-law-0ec9bc6c-3aeb-4af0-8031-aa0f01a46a7c.html)
  12. Kate Ng, “World’s worst abusers to be elected to UN human rights council,” The Independent (Britain), October 13, 2020. (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/un-human-rights-council-election-activists-eu-states-b1013002.html)
  13. U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Press Release, “USCIRF Outraged Over China Selection to UN Human Right Council Consultative Group,” April 9, 2020. (https://www.uscirf.gov/news-room/releases-statements/uscirf-outraged-over-china-selection-un-human-right-council)
  14. Bayram Altug and Serife Cetin, “Leaked emails confirm UN passed info to China in name-sharing scandal,” Anadolu International (Turkey), January 18, 2021. (https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/leaked-emails-confirm-un-passed-info-to-china-in-name-sharing-scandal/2114163); Ben Evansky, “UN Human Rights Office accused of helping China keep an eye on dissidents,” Fox News, December 14, 2019. (https://www.foxnews.com/world/un-human-rights-office-china-dissidents)
  15. UN Information System on the Question of Palestine, “Human Rights Council’s Resolutions,” accessed May 26, 2021. (https://www.un.org/unispal/human-rights-council-resolutions); UN General Assembly, Resolution 60/251, April 3, 2006, page 2. (https://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/A.RES.60.251_En.pdf); “Agenda Item 7: Country Claims and UN Watch Responses,” UN Watch, 2021. (https://unwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Agenda-Item-7-Country-Claims-and-UN-Watch-Responses.pdf)
  16. See, for example: U.S. Department of State, “2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Israel, West Bank and Gaza,” March 30, 2021. (https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/israel-west-bank-and-gaza)
  17. “The Treatment of Israel by the United Nations,” UN Watch, January 14, 1997. (https://unwatch.org/the-treatment-of-israel-by-the-united-nations); “HRC 44 Written Statement: Remedies for Protection Gap in Mandate of SR on Palestine,” UN Watch, July 13, 2020. (https://unwatch.org/hrc-44-written-statement-remedies-for-protection-gap-in-mandate-of-sr-on-palestine)
  18. “UN confirms anti-Israeli prof for 6-year post investigating ‘Israel’s violations,’” UN Watch, March 23, 2016. (https://unwatch.org/un-nominates-anti-israeli-professor-6-year-post-investigating-israels-violations)
  19. Pnina Sharvit Baruch, “A Critical Analysis of the Report of the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry into the 2014 Gaza Conflict,” Lawfare, March 23, 2017. (https://www.lawfareblog.com/critical-analysis-report-un-human-rights-council-commission-inquiry-2014-gaza-conflict); UN Human Rights Council, Resolution S-21/1, July 23, 2014. (https://unispal.un.org/UNISPAL.NSF/0/E3303790B38376D785257D250054CCA2); Richard Goldstone, “Reconsidering the Goldstone Report on Israel and war crimes,” The Washington Post, April 1, 2011. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/reconsidering-the-goldstone-report-on-israel-and-war-crimes/2011/04/01/AFg111JC_story.html)
  20. UN Human Rights Council, Resolution S-30/L.1, May 27, 2021. (https://undocs.org/A/HRC/S-30/L.1)
  21. UN Human Rights Council, Resolution 31/36, March 24, 2016. (https://unispal.un.org/DPA/DPR/unispal.nsf/0/27504FA26B31893385257FDB0074C1FC)
  22. David May, “UN’s New Anti-Israel Blacklist Condemns Companies for Generic Business Activities,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 14, 2020. (https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2020/02/14/uns-new-anti-israel-blacklist-condemns-companies-for-generic-business-activities); Raphael Ahren, “UN human rights agency releases blacklist of 112 companies that aid settlements,” The Times of Israel (Israel), February 12, 2020. (https://www.timesofisrael.com/un-human-rights-agency-releases-blacklist-of-112-companies-that-aid-settlements)
  23. Acting Deputy Department Spokesman Gordon Duguid, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Office of the Spokesman, Press Statement, “U.S. to Run for Election to the UN Human Rights Council,” March 31, 2009. (https://2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2009/03/121049.htm)
  24. Ambassador Nikki Haley, U.S. Mission to the United Nations, “U.S. Withdrawal from Human Rights Council: Impact and Next Steps,” Remarks Delivered at The Heritage Foundation, July 18, 2018. (https://usun.usmission.gov/remarks-on-u-s-withdrawal-from-human-rights-council-impact-and-next-steps-at-the-heritage-foundation)
  25. “Countries and Territories,” Freedom House, accessed May 26, 2021. (https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-world/scores)
  26. World Jewish Congress, “Question of the Violation of Human Rights in the Occupied Arab Territories, Including Palestine,” Letter to the UN Secretary-General, January 11, 1999. (https://www.un.org/unispal/document/auto-insert-185299)
  27. David May, “UN’s New Anti-Israel Blacklist Condemns Companies for Generic Business Activities,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 14, 2020. (https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2020/02/14/uns-new-anti-israel-blacklist-condemns-companies-for-generic-business-activities)


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