The United Nations’s premier body for protecting human rights has elected serial human rights abusers, including Russia and China, to the panel, once again calling into question whether it’s actually an important platform to address the plight of millions — or an anachronism.
The Geneva-based, 47-member UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) does two main things: It passes nonbinding resolutions on human rights issues around the world, and it oversees the work of experts who investigate violations in specific countries. Its supporters, those of whom in the US typically lean left, say it’s a place where nations can address issues that don’t usually garner the world’s attention. Its critics, who mostly lean right, argue it’s a toothless organization that kowtows to authoritarians and harbors a deep anti-Israel bias.
Detractors gained an upper hand in the debate this week when China, Russia, Cuba, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan each won enough votes to sit on the UNHRC for a three-year term (though China received fewer votes than it had in previous years). Other despotic regimes angling for a spot, like Saudi Arabia, didn’t get the nod, however.
The result led the Trump administration’s former ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, to lambaste the panel on Twitter as “a total farce not worthy of its name,” clearly defending America’s exit from the body on her watch in 2018.
Some experts say her views aren’t solely partisan. “The Nikki Haleys of the world have a point,” Richard Gowan, who oversees UN advocacy at the International Crisis Group (ICG).
After all, China has forced roughly 2 million Uighur Muslims into indoctrination camps, and for years Russia has repressed political dissent with excessive force while pushing “family values,” code for anti-LGBTQ policies. What’s more, the council has continually adopted resolution after resolution condemning Israel, a US ally, for violence against Palestinians while largely ignoring abuses perpetrated by groups like Hamas. In fact, the UNHRC singled out Israel in its first year, failing to officially chide any other country for human rights violations.
Given all that, it’s fair to look at the council and think it’s a problematic forum the US should stay out of. But experts say there are a few problems with that view, namely that the US loses any influence in that forum to push back against the Russias and Chinas of the world — and Israel is left without a strong backer on the council.
“US presence and engagement can make the council’s work better,” David Bosco, an associate professor and UN expert at Indiana University Bloomington, told me. “Russia and China often collaborate on the council to advance a vision of human rights more deferential to national sovereignty.” In other words, they basically advocate for a world with no accountability: If no nation…