GENEVA, Switzerland — The United States is returning to the United Nations Human Rights Council three-and-a-half years after its dramatic walk-out — time seized upon by China to assert wider influence in the world body.
The UN General Assembly elected new members to its top rights body on Thursday, with countries kicking off their three-year council term from January 1.
Aside from the US, the UN also elected Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Cameroon, Eritrea, Kazakhstan and Somalia to the rights body, despite the fact that they are regularly criticized by activists for their poor human rights records.
Also securing membership were Benin, Gambia, Honduras, India, Paraguay, Malaysia and Montenegro.
China, Cuba, Russia, Pakistan, Libya, Mauritania and Venezuela will remain on as members.
The executive director of UN Watch, an NGO that monitors anti-Israel bias and other ills at Turtle Bay, said the elections were designed to weed out the world’s worst rights abusers.
But “oppressive regimes like China, Cuba, Libya, Russia and Eritrea routinely win election, and the stamp of international legitimacy,” said Hillel Neuer.
The Geneva director of Human Rights Watch, John Fisher, told AFP that the regional blocs which nominate candidates had a “responsibility” to make sure those countries met the minimum standards, pointing the finger at nominees like Eritrea, Cameroon and the United Arab Emirates.
Argentina, Finland, Lithuania, Luxembourg and the US are the only members the UN Watch NGO deemed qualified to sit on the council.
Though member states are chosen in a secret ballot, the election is a non-contest, with 18 candidate countries standing for 18 seats.
The council is tasked with strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide, addressing violations and making recommendations.
The US, under former president Donald Trump, quit the council in 2018, accusing it of hypocrisy and obsession with haranguing Israel, in a move feted by Jerusalem.
Israel has long accused the council of being biased against it and has generally refused to cooperate with its investigations into alleged Israeli crimes.
US envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the Biden administration would continue to push against anti-Israel sentiment from inside the body. “We will oppose the Council’s disproportionate attention on Israel, which includes the Council’s only standing agenda item targeting a single country,” she said in a statement.
The council in Geneva is made up of 47 member states elected by the UN General Assembly in New York.
A third of the council is elected every year, and countries can only serve for two consecutive three-year terms.
The membership is split proportionally by geographic regions.
Non-governmental organizations accuse the regional groups of stitching up a “legitimizing facade” rather than a genuine contest at the council, by presenting the same number of candidates as vacant seats.
Eritrea’s appearance among Africa’s nominees has once again raised the question of authoritarian regimes with sub-par rights records taking a seat on the council.
In June, Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, the new UN special rapporteur on the rights situation in Eritrea, painted a bleak picture in his first report to the council.
There was no sign of improvement, he said, pointing to arbitrary and incommunicado detention, inhumane prison conditions, lack of basic freedoms, and indefinite military service, where conscripts are subjected to forced labor and sexual violence.
China takes control
As Washington returns to the council, it will come face to face with an emboldened China that took advantage of the US absence to flex its muscles.
“The Chinese and all those who are fundamentally against human rights as Europeans understand them… oppose economic, social and cultural rights. It is not a new trend, but it is undeniably growing stronger,” one European diplomat told AFP.
According to another, “China’s objective is simple: to destroy the concept of the universality of human rights and to assert a vision consistent with its political system.”
In recent years, China and its partners, including Belarus and Venezuela, have wheeled out joint statements supporting Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet, and denouncing “human rights violations” in Western countries, including against indigenous Canadians.
Faced with growing polarization, some fear that Washington’s return will reinforce the trend and see the council dominated by pro-US and pro-Chinese rivalry.
Marc Limon, executive director of the Universal Rights Group think-tank in Geneva, said the United States has “basically focused on just one thing, which is China,” since re-engaging with the council earlier this year as an observer.
Those attacks and Beijing’s reprisals are “sucking the oxygen out of all of the other important work of the Human Rights Council,” he said.
“A lot of countries are fed up, because they don’t want to see the multilateral system being held hostage by these big geopolitical power games.”
He urged the US to broaden its focus to win back support from developing countries that had warmed to Beijing during the US absence.
China’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Chen Xu, told reporters on Wednesday that he hoped Washington would “conduct a constructive dialogue and try not to make human rights a political vehicle” once back on the council.
Thomas-Greenfield said the US’s initial efforts would indeed focus on China, along with Afghanistan, Burma, Ethiopia, Syria, and Yemen.
“More broadly, we will promote respect for fundamental freedoms and women’s rights, and oppose religious intolerance, racial and ethnic injustices, and violence and discrimination against members of minority groups, including LGBTQI+ persons and persons with disabilities,” she said in a statement.