U.S. Reengages with U.N. Human Rights Council

On February 8, 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced that the U.S. was reengaging with the U.N. Human Rights Council. Here we will examine that development after first looking at the U.S.’ prior rocky relationship with the Council.

The U.S. Rocky Relationship with the Council

 Creation of the Council.[1]

On March 16,  2006, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution creating the Council to be “responsible for promoting universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner; . . . [to] address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon; . . [and to] promote the effective coordination and the mainstreaming of human rights within the United Nations system.”

This work of the Council “shall be guided by the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity, constructive international dialogue and cooperation, with a view to enhancing the promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development.”

That General Assembly resolution also provided “that the Council shall consist of forty-seven Member States, which shall be elected directly and individually by secret ballot by the majority of the members of the General Assembly; the membership shall be based on equitable geographical distribution, and seats shall be distributed as follows among regional groups: Group of African States, thirteen; Group of Asian States, thirteen; Group of Eastern European States, six; Group of Latin American and Caribbean States, eight; and Group of Western European and other States (including the U.S.), seven; the members of the Council shall serve for a period of three years and shall not be eligible for immediate re-election after two consecutive terms.”

The General Assembly vote on this organizing resolution was 170 to 4.

U.S. Non-Involvement with the Council, 2007-2009[2]

In 2006, the U.S.was one of the four negative votes on creating the Council; the others were Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau while Belarus, Iran and Venezuela abstained. Soon thereafter the State Department announced that it would not be a candidate for membership in the May 2006 first election of members and instead would support other countries with strong human rights records and might run for a seat in 2007. But the U.S. agreed to help finance the Council and pledged to support it.

Among the Republican critics opposing  the panel were Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota; Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman; and Representative Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, who sponsored a bill that would withhold U.S. dues from the United Nations. The opposition was bolstered by President George W. Bush and by John R. Bolton, then the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., who said, “I believe rather strongly that our leverage in terms of the performance of the new council is greater by the U.S. not running and sending the signal ‘this is not business as usual’ this year than if we were to run.”

When Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, proposed a resolution on March 31 calling for an American boycott of the new council, Representative Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey, another Republican detractor of the United Nations, put out a statement urging the resolution’s defeat. Human rights groups speculated that the United States was worried that revelations of abuses of detainees in Iraq and of clandestine prisons abroad had raised fears in the George W. Bush administration that it could not get the 96 votes in the 191-member General Assembly needed for election.

This U.S. decision not to support the Council was criticized by Human Rights Watch, and Robert Wexler (Dem., FL), a member of the House International Relations Committee, who said, “This decision reflects the colossal diplomatic failures of Ambassador Bolton. It’s a national disgrace for America that we will not be a presence in guiding and leading that council in a productive direction, and that under Mr. Bolton’s leadership at the U.N., the world’s single superpower cannot muster up the necessary votes to win an election.”

In Fiscal 2009, a provision enacted by Congress prohibited U.S. funding of the Council.

U.S.Involvment with the Council, 2009-18[3]

In 2009, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would seek membership in the Council. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. at the time, Susan Rice, said “ the decision was made out of a belief “that working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights.”

Thereafter, on May 12, 2009, the U.N. General Assembly elected the U.S. to the Council for a three year-term (2010-12) and on November 12, 2012 re-elected the U.S. for another three-year term (2013-15). However, under the Council’s  term-limitation provision, the U.S. was not eligible for re-election in 2015 for another such term.

But on October 28, 2016, it was elected to another three-year term (2017-19), but it did not complete that term when the U.S. withdrew from membership on June 19, 2018.

U.S. Withdrawal from Council Membership, June 19, 2018[4]

On June 19, 2018, then U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley jointly announced that the U.S. was withdrawing from the Council. According to the Secretary, “the Human Rights Council has become an exercise in shameless hypocrisy, with many of the world’s worst human-rights abuses going ignored and some of the world’s most serious offenders sitting on the council itself. The only thing worse than a council that does almost nothing to protect human rights is a council that covers for human-rights abuses — and is therefore an obstacle to progress and an impediment to change.”

These comments were endorsed by Ambassador Haley. “The Human Rights Council has become an exercise in shameless hypocrisy, with many of the world’s worst human-rights abuses going ignored and some of the world’s most serious offenders sitting on the council itself. The only thing worse than a council that does almost nothing to protect human rights is a council that covers for human-rights abuses — and is therefore an obstacle to progress and an impediment to change.”

This withdrawal was severely criticized at the time by Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democratic member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, and others.

Afterwards Ambassador Haley criticized U.S. human rights groups for their failure to support her preceding efforts to reform the Council in the U.N. General Assembly, The response from such groups was pressing the General Assembly for the U.S. proposals would only have invited efforts to weaken the Council from Russia, China and other nations.

The Biden Administration’s Reengagement with the Council, 2021-[5]

On February 8, 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced that the U.S. was reengaging with the U.N. Human Rights Council. “The Biden administration has re-committed the United States to a foreign policy centered on democracy, human rights, and equality. Effective use of multilateral tools is an important element of that vision, and in that regard the President has instructed the Department of State to re-engage immediately and robustly with the UN Human Rights Council.”

“We recognize 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 U.S. leadership, which countries with authoritarian agendas have used to their advantage.”

“When it works well, the Human Rights Council shines a spotlight on countries with the worst human rights records and can serve as an important forum for those fighting injustice and tyranny. The Council can help to promote fundamental freedoms around the globe, including freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and religion or belief as well as the fundamental rights of women, girls, LGBTQI+ persons, and other marginalized communities. To address the Council’s deficiencies and ensure it lives up to its mandate, the United States must be at the table using the full weight of our diplomatic leadership.”

“In the immediate term, the United States will engage with the Council as an observer, and in that capacity will have the opportunity to speak in the Council, participate in negotiations, and partner with others to introduce resolutions. It is our view that the best way to improve the Council is to engage with it and its members in a principled fashion. We strongly believe that when the United States engages constructively with the Council, in concert with our allies and friends, positive change is within reach.”

This decision was criticized by former Ambassador Haley. “If Biden rejoins the council whose membership includes dictatorial regimes & some of the world’s worst human rights violators,” Ms. Haley wrote on Twitter last month, “it will fly in the face of our fight for human rights.” Joining her was a letter from 40 House Republicans, who said the Council was “disproportionately targeting” Israel over other members.

The Council’s current members include longtime U.S. allies such as the U.K., France and Germany. But the roster also includes countries such as China, Russia, Cuba, Somalia, Eritrea, Uzbekistan, Sudan — states that are deemed “not free” in the most recent rankings from Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization.


This blogger concurs in the decision to rejoin the Council. Yes, it has many flaws, but the U.S. as an advocate for human rights needs to be participating in its debates to encourage  greater respect for international human rights. Obviously this blogger rejects the editorial opinion of the Wall Street Journal that a “leading conceit of Joe Biden’s foreign policy is that the U.S. can reform international organizations—and make them live up to their ostensibly noble purposes—simply by showing up. History shows that America’s involvement condones the farce rather than ending it.”

One of the unique procedures the Council has developed to help fulfill its mission is Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of human rights records and issues in every U.N. member (and thus is “Universal”) every 4½ years (and thus is “Periodic”). Each such UPR concludes with recommendations (not orders) for improving human rights from members and Council officers.

As always, comments of agreement or disagreement or elaboration are always appreciated.


[1] U.N. Human Rights Council, Welcome to the Human Rights Council; U.N. General Assembly, Resolution 60/251 (Mar. 15, 2006).

[2] Hoge, U.S. Won’t Seek a Seat on the U.N. Rights Council, N.Y. Times (April 7, 2006).

[3] U.N. General Assembly, Election of Human Rights Council Members (12 May 2009); U.N. General Assembly, Election of Human Rights Council Members (12 Nov. 2012).

[4] Harris, Trump Administration Withdraws U.S. From U.N. Human Rights Council, N.Y. Times (June 19, 2018); Harris, Haley Blames Watchdog Groups for U.S. Withdrawal From U.N. Rights Council, N.Y. Times (June 20, 2018).

[5] State Dep’t, Secretary Blinken Press Statement: U.S. Decision To Re-engage with the UN Human Rights Council (Feb. 8, 2021); Hudson, U.S. rejoins U.N. Human Rights Council, reversing Trump Era Policy, Wash. Post (Feb. 8, 2021); Rogers, Biden Administration Moves to Rejoin U.N. Human Rights Council, N.Y. Times (Feb.7, 2021); Chappell, Biden Orders U.S. To Re-engage With U.N. Human Rights Council Immediately, npr-news (Feb. 8, 2021); Assoc. Press, U.S. officials: Biden administration moves to rejoin UN Human Rights Council in another reversal of Trump foreign policies, Wash. Post (Feb. 7, 2021).

[6]  Prior posts have discussed the U.S. and the Council (List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical: United States (POLITICS) [“U.S. & U.N. Human Rights Council” section). This blog also has discussed  the Council’s 2018 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Cameroon and Cuba (List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical: CAMEROON; List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical: Cuba [Cuban Human Rights section]. See also Editorial, Hope Over Experience at the U.N. (Feb. 8, 2021).



As always, comments of agreement or disagreement or elaboration are always appreciated.

Published by


As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

Leave a Reply