GENEVA — The United States’ decision to re-engage with the United Nations Human Rights Council, announced last month, has been welcomed in many quarters. The news offered a sense of the priorities the US would have in returning to the Council under the Biden administration, after the country left the body in 2018. Now there is considerable curiosity and speculation about what specifically the US will do in Geneva, first as an observer in 2021 and then as a member, if it is elected for a three-year term starting in 2022.
The priorities mentioned by Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Feb. 8 included reforming the Council’s agenda, membership and priorities — including its disproportionate focus on Israel. He also noted the role of the Council in spotlighting countries with the worst human-rights records in the world and in promoting fundamental freedoms, such as that of expression, association and religion as well as the fundamental rights of women, girls, LGBTQI+ people and other marginalized communities. There may also be many specific issues and country situations that arise and capture the attention of the US in the Council this year.
The US must also be ready to engage on genuine human-rights issues that reflect the concerns and priorities of other parties. One such issue before the Council will pose particular challenges for the US: the follow-up to the urgent debate at the Council in June 2020 on racially inspired human-rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality and violence against peaceful protests. Hardly any country welcomes close critical examination of its own human-rights record in the Council beyond the Universal Periodic Review, which covers all UN member states. The debate initiated by the African regional group last June was largely focused on racism and police brutality in the US, prompted by massive demonstrations across the country and the rest of the world after the murder of George Floyd, an American Black man, by police officers in Minneapolis that May.
When the Trump administration, acting outside the Council as a nonmember, could not prevail on other countries to remove all references to the US in the consensus resolution (43/1) adopted after the debate, it treated the document as if it were an unsatisfactory result in a global beauty contest and dismissed it as a reflection of the Council’s hypocrisy.
The racism and police brutality that led to the June 2020 debate have a long history predating the Trump presidency and still continue. In a statement to the Council on Feb. 24, Secretary of State Blinken acknowledged systemic racism and economic injustice in the US and spoke of action by President Biden to tackle their root causes. Blinken said the US was “eager to find a more effective and inclusive way to put ‘fighting racism’ at the top of the global human rights agenda.”
Despite this move, he did not commit the US to engaging with the follow-up to Resolution 43/1 or the report of the UN high commissioner for human rights mandated by the resolution. (The Council is scheduled to hear an oral update on the report on March 19, and the US mission in Geneva is sponsoring an online discussion on March 17 on “addressing racial justice as a US foreign policy imperative.”)
The US must resist the inevitable domestic pressures to contain and minimize the reporting mandate of High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet and to turn off uncomfortable discussions in the Council about racism and police brutality in the US. It must also resist pressures to try to have the report, scheduled for final delivery to the Council in June 2021, shelved, like too many other reports to the Council.
How the US deals with the process launched with Resolution 43/1 will speak volumes about how it intends to engage with the Council. It will go a long way to demonstrating whether the US is, in the words of President Biden, prepared to “lead not merely by the example of [its] power but by the power of [its] example.” If the US undercuts or tries to end the Council’s discussion of racism and police brutality, it will harm its credibility and influence and hinder its ability to roll back the increasing power that China and other authoritarian governments have grabbed in the US’ absence.
The poisonous effects of Trumpism in US domestic politics will impose serious constraints on how the Biden administration can approach human rights in the UN. Nonetheless, the follow-up to Resolution 43/1 need not be an exercise in American self-flagellation. The US has often demonstrated that it can be imaginative and sophisticated in overcoming polarization to constructively address difficult issues in the Council. It needs to do so again by engaging with members and observers who are genuinely concerned about racism and police brutality. It can then identify and promote practical, useful contributions to the Council for addressing racially discriminatory and violent practices by law enforcement agencies against Africans and people of African descent, wherever those practices take place.
As the US looks for its own way to participate in the process established in Resolution 43/1, it should actively consult representatives of American civil society. In the Council, it should also aim to ensure that civil society representatives from other countries that are marred by racism and police brutality can contribute to addressing such affronts in their countries.
Resolution 43/1 is about racism and police brutality in the USA and in other countries across the world. One can reasonably expect that Bachelet’s report will identify many countries damaged by racism and police brutality, each in its own way. Treating the implementation of the resolution as a process to address a common problem, manifested in different ways in different countries, offers opportunities for constructive engagement to reduce racism and related police brutality globally.
Some people will argue — whether in good faith or to score political points — that the US should not expose itself to criticism in the Council by China, Russia and other countries with poor human-rights records. They will say that doing so will undermine the influence of the US in the Council and beyond. However, genuine readiness to discuss human-rights shortcomings demonstrates strength. The persistent refusal of certain countries to acknowledge and discuss their own shortcomings testifies to their weakness.
This essay has been adapted from a version that first appeared in The Geneva Observer.
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Peter Splinter is an independent human-rights consultant. He represented Amnesty International to the United Nations in Geneva from 2004 to 2016. In that role, he was closely involved in the establishment and operation of the Human Rights Council.