US rejoining UN Human Rights Council; what it should do first

US rejoining UN Human Rights Council; what it should do first
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The United States on Thursday won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) beginning in January 2022, with the Biden administration vowing to prove it can reform the council from within. Biden’s first test: dissolving the council’s one-sided commission of inquiry on Israel.

In a statement issued moments after the UNHRC election results were announced, Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenGOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips Biden administration resists tougher Russia sanctions in Congress GOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions MORE put anti-Israel bias at the top of the Biden administration’s reform agenda. The council, he said, “suffers from serious flaws, including disproportionate attention on Israel and the membership of several states with egregious human rights records.”

Indeed, the council’s obsession with castigating Israel has long been atop the list of criticisms leveled against it. Since the council’s creation, it has adopted more resolutions condemning Israel than every other country in the world combined. In contrast, the council has adopted zero resolutions on the gross human rights abuses in China, Cuba, and Russia.

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In addition, Israel is the only country to which the council dedicates a standing agenda item. As if Israel — a democracy rated by the respected Freedom House as a free country, which boasts Arabs on its Supreme Court, in its parliament and in its coalition government — were the world’s leading abuser of human rights.

The council currently is preparing its most insidious assault on Israel to date.

In May, the Hamas terrorist organization rained thousands of rockets down on Israeli civilians while using Palestinians as human shields — both clear violations of the law of armed conflict. Rather than condemning Hamas, the UNHRC voted to establish a new commission of inquiry designed to produce a report falsely accusing Israel of committing apartheid.

The mandate for this new commission includes not only investigating Israel for violations of the law of armed conflict but also investigating “systematic discrimination and repression based on national, ethnic, racial or religious identity” and establishing facts of “crimes perpetrated.” This phrasing mirrors the language of a report issued in April by Human Rights Watch, which invented a new, broader definition of the decades-old crime of apartheid and falsely accused Israel of violating it.

The commission’s objectives are clear: falsely label Israel as committing apartheid; leverage the commission’s reporting to support the global boycott, divestment, sanctions movement, and pressure the International Criminal Court to expand its illegitimate investigation of Israel.

Importantly, this commission, unlike its predecessors, came with no expiration date — rather than producing a one-time report on a particular outbreak of violence, it is to issue annual reports in perpetuity. The commission will be staffed by full-time researchers who will create a steady stream of official UN documents containing one-sided allegations that Israel is guilty of war crimes, apartheid, and other human rights violations. For those who recall the controversial Goldstone report of 2009 — a product of a similar fact-finding mission ordered by the UNHRC following an Israeli conflict with Hamas — the new commission looks like Goldstone on steroids.

The UNHRC’s fatal flaws stretch beyond its bias against Israel, of course. The council’s membership is dominated by countries that violate human rights, including China, Cuba, Eritrea, Libya, Russia, and Venezuela. The UNHRC’s disproportionate focus on Israel seems designed to distract attention from the gross and systemic abuses committed by the council’s own member states, which are rarely if ever condemned by the council.

When Blinken first declared the U.S. would return to the council, he said that the U.S. “withdrawal in June 2018 did nothing to encourage meaningful change, but instead created a vacuum of U.S. leadership, which countries with authoritarian agendas have used to their advantage.” Blinken committed that the U.S. would be at the council “table using the full weight of our diplomatic leadership” and that he strongly believed “that when the United States engages constructively with the council, in concert with our allies and friends, positive change is within reach.”

This is Blinken’s chance.

The United States will be seated as a UNHRC member in January, but its work to dissolve the commission of inquiry should begin now. Blinken and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-GreenfieldLinda Thomas-GreenfieldTop US diplomat calls for 'sustained and substantive dialogue' with North Korea US rejoining UN Human Rights Council; what it should do first Biden falters in pledge to strengthen US alliances MORE should urge key UN leaders to block funding for the commission. The UN’s Fifth Committee controls the budget, which is traditionally passed close to Christmas. That gives the U.S. and its allies two months to try to defund the commission.

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The Biden administration should also start building allied support for a resolution to dissolve the commission. There is precedent for the U.S. successfully leading such a reversal when it uses its diplomatic muscle: The 1991 General Assembly vote to repeal a 1975 resolution declaring Zionism to be racism, which is essentially what the UNHRC’s commission of inquiry was established to conclude.

Biden officials claim the UNHRC is not broken beyond repair — that engagement and diplomacy can achieve much-needed reforms, starting with ending the Council’s bias against Israel. Let them prove their critics wrong by dissolving the anti-Israel commission of inquiry. 

Richard Goldberg is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD), a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Goldberg previously served as Director for Countering Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction for the National Security Council. Follow him on Twitter @rich_goldberg

Orde Kittrie is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, law professor at Arizona State University, and author of Lawfare: Law as a Weapon of War. Follow him on Twitter @Ordefk