Keith Harper at the human rights council

The Biden Administration’s Decision to Re-Join the UN Human Rights Council is about Competing With China

The Biden administration has formally announced its intention to re-engage with the Human Rights Council after the prior administration abruptly vacated America’s seat at the table.  If past is precedent, this move suggests that the Human Rights Council will be a more effective platform for advancing American interests and a global human rights agenda.

A Brief History of the United States and the UN Human Rights Council

American participation at the UN Human Rights Council has become a partisan issue in US foreign policy. When the Council was created in 2005 the George W. Bush administration did not seek membership. At the time, the George W. Bush administration’s reputation internationally was flailing because of its decision to launch a deeply unpopular invasion and occupation of Iraq; its defense of the use of torture; and for the indefinite detention of people at the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba.

Instead of seeking to run for a seat on the Council (an election it may have lost) the Bush administration sought to delegitimize the Human Rights Council for its criteria for membership. (47 countries, proportionately divided amongst the regions of the world,  are elected by a simple majority of the entire UN membership to serve three year terms).  From outside the Council, the Bush administration also accused it of disproportionately focusing on Israel.

When the Obama administration came to office in 2009, the Human Rights Council was just four years old.  The new administration sought to test the premise that with US leadership, the Council could improve and serve both US interests and advance human rights globally. The United States sought, and won, a seat at the Council. It subsequently used that position to block certain countries with problematic human rights records from joining the council. This includes mounting a successful campaign against Iran and Russian membership.

The Obama administration was also able to reduce the Council’s focus on Israel during its time of engagement. A study by the Council on Foreign Relations found that the number of Israel-specific resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council decreased by more than half once the United States joined. 

But beyond preventing the Human Rights Council from doing wrong in their view, the Obama administration also sought to use the Council as a platform to pursue its human rights priorities. Most notably, this included a presidential directive called “Working to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Persons Globally” in which the United States sought to mainstream LGBT rights within the broader UN human rights architecture. This culminated with a 2011 resolution of the Human Rights Council affirming the equal rights of people of all sexual orientations.

Later, then-United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton affirmed American support for using the UN Human Rights Council to advance the rights of LGBTQI people worldwide when she visited the Council headquarters on Human Rights Day 2011 and she stated that, “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.”

American support for gay rights helped usher in resolutions at the Human Rights Council that signaled normative changes at the UN.  American engagement at the Human Rights Council also lead subsequently lead to the creation of a special rapporteur on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity to specifically monitor and report back on these issues. That is now a permanent feature of the international global human rights architecture.

The United States and China Will Compete at the Human Rights Council

In 2018, the Trump administration abruptly left the Human Rights Council, abandoning its seat even before its term was up. At the time, Trump’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley again cited the Council’s focus on Israel and the fact that the Council included some problematic members as reasons to abandon the Human Rights Council.

In the years of American disengagement with the Human Rights Council, China was able to marshall enough support to win a seat in 2020, despite its ongoing repression in Hong Kong and the systematic abrogation of the rights of Uyghurs, which may amount to genocide. (On the contrary, the Obama administration was able to rally countries to vote against another rival, Russia, from winning a seat in 2016.)

Now, the Human Rights Council could become a platform for China to test the viability of a changing norms around human rights that would in-effect degrade freedom of speech and freedom of association. This includes advancing what China calls a “people-centered” approach to human rights which seeks to use economic development as a substitute for many of the rights enshrined in the UN Human Rights Charter.

The Human Rights Council will also likely be a platform for competition over digital freedom. Specifically China is advancing a concept known as “cyber-sovereignty” which would entitle countries to full and complete control over their digital space. Not only could this hinder access to information and speech within borders but as Chinese technological platforms become more and more common around world human rights groups are concerned that this concept could serve to abrogate rights around the world.

“They are trying to undergird it with a normative framework that would validate this unfettered access to all communications that take place within China — and globally as well because they use Chinese platforms or infrastructure,” Suzanne Nossel the CEO of PEN America and former US State Department official told me in a recent podcast interview. 

The Biden administration’s decision to join the Human Rights Council suggests that it is not willing to cede American leadership in the face of a geo-political competitor that seeks to challenge long established human rights norms in the next frontier of the digital space. And if past is precedent, American participation in the Human Rights Council suggests that it will be a more effective institution for promoting global good.