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US seeks UN rights council seat, calls for end to disproportionate Israel focus

In video message, Blinken says international body must ‘look at how it conducts its business’ and eliminate agenda item that singles out Israel for perpetual censure

The UN Human Rights Council in Geneval discusses a resolution condemning Israeli actions on the Golan Heights, March 22, 2019 (screen shot UN WebTV)
The UN Human Rights Council in Geneval discusses a resolution condemning Israeli actions on the Golan Heights, March 22, 2019 (screen shot UN WebTV)

The United States is seeking election to the UN Human Rights Council despite its disproportionate focus on Israel, three years after former president Donald Trump’s administration withdrew over that issue, the US top diplomat told the rights body Wednesday.

“I’m pleased to announce the United States will seek election to the Human Rights Council for the 2022-24 term,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the council in a video message. “We humbly ask for the support of all UN member states in our bid to return to a seat in this body.”

But while the US under  President Joe Biden is eager to reverse Trump’s move and return to the council, Blinken stressed that the country still agrees with some of the criticisms lobbed by the previous administration. “Institutions are not perfect,” he said.

“As the United States reengages, we urge the Human Rights Council to look at how it conducts its business. That includes its disproportionate focus on Israel,” he said. “We need to eliminate Agenda Item 7 and treat the human rights situation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories the same way as this body handles any other country.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to staff at the US State Department during the first visit of US President Joe Biden (L) in Washington, DC, February 4, 2021 (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

A permanent element of the council’s agenda is Item 7 (“The human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories”), which since its adoption in 2007 has singled out Israel for perpetual censure, a measure that no other country faces at the UN body.

The United States announced earlier this month that it would reengage with the 47-member council after Trump’s administration pulled the country out in June 2018 due to its disproportionate focus on Israel, which has been the subject of by far the largest number of critical council resolutions against any country, and because it failed to meet an extensive list of reforms demanded by then-US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.

The decision is likely to draw criticism from conservative lawmakers and many in the pro-Israel community, who have echoed Trump administration complaints that the council employed a double standard and was too quick to overlook abuses by autocratic regimes and governments and even accept them as members.

While Washington has vowed to begin active participation in the council’s activities immediately, it cannot automatically regain the membership it walked away from three years ago. Elections for the next term will be held toward the end of this year.

“The United States is placing democracy and human rights at the center of our foreign policy, because they are essential for peace and stability,” Blinken told the council’s main annual session, which this year is being held mainly virtually due to the pandemic.

“This commitment is firm and grounded in our own experience as a democracy, imperfect and often falling short of our own ideals, but striving always for a more inclusive, respectful, and free country,” he said.

“In addition, we will focus on ensuring that the council membership reflects high standards for upholding human rights,” he said.

The United States has long complained that prominent rights abusers are given seats on the council.

Human rights advocates display placards during a news conference following United Nations Human Rights Council’s resolution in Geneva, July 12, 2019 in suburban Quezon city, northeast of Manila, Philippines (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

The US departure left a void that Beijing and others have been eager to fill at the council and currently the membership includes China, Russia, and Venezuela, along with Cuba, Cameroon, Eritrea and the Philippines.

“Those with the worst human rights records should not be members of this council,” Blinken said.

“We must work together to improve the work and membership of the council so it can do even more to advance the rights of people around the world.”

“We will continue to call out abuses in places like Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Iran. We reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Alexei Navalny, as well as hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained for exercising their rights,” Blinken said.

“We will speak out for universal values when atrocities are committed in Xinjiang or when fundamental freedoms are undermined in Hong Kong. And we are alarmed by the backsliding of democracy in Burma, which is why our first action upon re-engaging the Council was on this very crisis.

“We encourage the Council to support resolutions at this session addressing issues of concern around the world, including ongoing human rights violations in Syria and North Korea, the lack of accountability for past atrocities in Sri Lanka, and the need for further investigation into the situation in South Sudan,” Blinken said.

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