US officially rejoins controversial UN Human Rights Council

The US was elected on Thursday in an uncontested ballot of member countries by the UN General Assembly. President Joe Biden had said he would return the US to the Geneva-based rights organization. Cameroon, Eritrea and the United Arab Emirates also joined the Human Rights Council on Thursday despite concerns over their own domestic records voiced by human rights organizations.

The US got 168 votes, a slight drop from what other countries received to get three-year terms.

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in a statement celebrating the American reentry to the council that the US’ initial efforts on the council will focus on Afghanistan, Myanmar, China, Ethiopia, Syria and Yemen. She said the US’ goals will be to “stand with human rights defenders and speak out against violations and abuses of human rights.”

“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 continued, adding that the US “will press against the election of countries with egregious human rights records and encourage those committed to promoting and protecting human rights both in their own countries and abroad to seek membership.”

Notably, Thomas-Greenfield said the US “will oppose the Council’s disproportionate attention on Israel, which includes the Council’s only standing agenda item targeting a single country. ”

Then-US Ambassador the UN Nikki Haley accused the council of bias against Israel and failing to hold human rights abusers accountable when the US left the panel in 2018.

“For too long,” Haley said in 2018, “the Human Rights Council has been a protector of human rights abusers, and a cesspool of political bias.”

“Human rights abusers continue to serve on, and be elected to, the council,” she said. “The world’s most inhumane regimes continue to escape its scrutiny, and the council continues politicizing scapegoating of countries with positive human rights records in an attempt to distract from the abusers in its ranks.

Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, announced the US would reengage with the council in February.

There are 47 member states on the council, and current members include countries that have been accused of grave human rights abuses such as China, Russia and Venezuela.

In a statement in February announcing the US’ re-engagement with the council, Blinken said the administration recognized “that the Human Rights Council is a flawed body, in need of reform to its agenda, membership, and focus, including its disproportionate focus on Israel.”

“However, our withdrawal in June 2018 did nothing to encourage meaningful change, but instead created a vacuum of US leadership, which countries with authoritarian agendas have used to their advantage,” he said.

The council has long been criticized for including countries with tarnished records on protecting human rights in their own territory. Ahead of Thursday’s vote at the UN, the NGO Human Rights Watch warned that a noncompetitive election “virtually guarantees seats for candidate countries with abysmal rights records,” calling on UN member countries to refrain from voting for Cameroon, Eritrea, United Arab Emirates specifically among others.

And the American Civil Liberties Union urged the Biden administration to prioritize human rights in domestic policy following the US’ reelection to the council.

“President Biden during his presidential campaign promised to reestablish relations with international partners and center human rights at home and abroad under his administration and to lead by the power of example,” the ACLU statement said. “However, despite the election to the council, the United States’ human rights record remains very problematic, not least because the country hasn’t yet ratified or fully implemented key international human rights treaties and failed to implement recommendations made by regional and global human rights bodies.”

The US’ reelection to the Human Rights Council is the latest effort to restore US standing on the global stage through involvement in multilateral organizations and treaties spurned by the Trump administration. Biden reversed the US departure from the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accords.

CNN’s Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.

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