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


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