The US on Thursday returned to the UN Human Rights Council, three-and-a-half years after its dramatic walkout — time seized upon by China to assert wider influence.
The UN General Assembly elected 18 new members of the UN’s top rights body, with countries starting their three-year council term from Jan. 1 next year.
Although member states were chosen in a secret ballot, the election was a non-contest, with 18 candidate countries standing for 18 seats. Beyond the US, the other states elected are: Argentina, Benin, Cameroon, Eritrea, Finland, Gambia, Honduras, India, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Montenegro, Paraguay, Qatar, Somalia and the United Arab Emirates.
The council is tasked with promoting and protecting human rights worldwide, addressing violations and making recommendations, but the election of Eritrea again raises the issue of having authoritarian regimes on the body.
Under former US president Donald Trump, the US quit the council in 2018, accusing it of hypocrisy and obsession with haranguing Israel.
When Washington returns next year under US President Joe Biden, it would come face to face with an emboldened China that took advantage of the US’ absence to flex its muscles.
“The Chinese and all those who are fundamentally against human rights as Europeans understand them ... oppose economic, social and cultural rights. It is not a new trend, but it is undeniably growing stronger,” one European diplomat said.
Another said that “China’s objective is simple: to destroy the concept of the universality of human rights and to assert a vision consistent with its political system.”
In the past few years, China and its partners, including Belarus and Venezuela, have wheeled out joint statements supporting Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet, and denouncing “human rights violations” in Western countries, including against indigenous Canadians.
Faced with growing polarization, some fear that Washington’s return would reinforce the trend and see the council dominated by pro-US and pro-Chinese rivalry.
Marc Limon, executive director of the Universal Rights Group think tank in Geneva, said the US has “basically focused on just one thing, which is China,” since re-engaging with the council earlier this year as an observer.
Those attacks and Beijing’s reprisals are “sucking the oxygen out of all of the other important work of the Human Rights Council,” he said.
“A lot of countries are fed up, because they don’t want to see the multilateral system being held hostage by these big geopolitical power games,” he said.
He urged Washington to broaden its focus to win back support from developing countries that had warmed to Beijing during the US’ absence.
In a statement, US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield confirmed that China was a top concern for Washington.
“Our initial efforts as full members in the council will focus on what we can accomplish in situations of dire need, such as in Afghanistan, Burma, China, Ethiopia, Syria and Yemen,” she said.
Chinese Ambassador to the UN Chen Xu (陳旭) told reporters on Wednesday before the vote that he hoped Washington would “conduct a constructive dialogue and try not to make human rights a political vehicle” once back on the council.
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