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CvT: The Global Threat of US Disempowerment of the UN Human Rights Council

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In the footsteps of its recent condemnation of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (HRC) decision to appoint China to its governing body, the US further critiqued China’s controversial human rights record and reiterated its 2018 decision to withdraw from the HRC.

The central mission of the HRC and its 47 member-states is to promote and protect human rights across the globe. However, following the announcement that China was elected to the panel, many spoke out against the decision. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, declared the appointment “validates the US decision to withdraw and use other venues and opportunities to protect and promote universal human rights.” Additionally, the United Nations Watch, a Geneva-based United Nations NGO watchdog, downgraded the validity of the council. According to the UN Watch, the inclusion of China and Russia as member-states indicates that 60% of the HRC’s members fail to meet the basic qualifications of a free democracy – an unsettling statistic to the onlooking international community. 

A historically spotty relationship with the council

When the HRC was established, George W. Bush was hesitant to become involved, and, after former-President Obama sought a seat, little came of the US’ involvement. Under Trump, the US withdrew in 2018 due to ongoing human rights abuses from member-states and what the US Ambassador, Nikki Haley, claimed was a “chronic bias against Israel.” However, many voices from within the UN and Washington argued that withdrawing from the council would only magnify the problem, as the action would allow for bad actors to continue abusing human rights with unchecked freedom. Critics advised that, while the council had its shortcomings, should the US remain involved it could still partner with other countries to introduce targeted proposals and hold countries like China and Russia accountable for gross infringements on human rights. With the US gone, however, remaining member countries would have to significantly increase their efforts to wield the same impact.

Regardless of the reasoning, there is an argument to be made for the US to rejoin the council. In 2018, China introduced a proposal, the “win-win cooperation,” which intended to weaken state accountability for serious human rights violations. At the time, it garnered a minority 28 states in favor and culminated in China quietly dropping the proposal in 2020. However, its brief existence points to China’s opportunistic intent with the US out of the picture to create more elasticity in human rights violations.

A perfectly flawed council turns dangerous

It is commonly accepted that the United Nations has not always proven to be the most efficient body through which to pass regulation or reform. However, rarely is a single country able to implement policies on an international level without the support and allyship of the HRC. Although the council includes member-states like China, Cuba, Russia, and others with complicated human rights records, US participation would add a powerful voice at the table in support of more stringent human rights practices. While the Human Rights Council is not a perfect governing body, it is still a means to promote human rights around the world and its integrity must be safeguarded to prevent ill-intended member-states from capitalizing on its disempowerment.

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