“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,” Blinken said in a statement Monday.
The decision fulfills a promise Biden made during his presidential campaign to rejoin the council and return U.S. influence to important international institutions that the Trump administration ceded to other major powers.
The move is expected to face criticism from Republican lawmakers and pro-Israel activists who have long complained that the council disproportionately criticizes the Jewish state’s occupation of Palestinian territories in comparison with human rights issues in other countries.
“If Biden rejoins the council whose membership includes dictatorial regimes & some of the world’s worst human rights violators, it will fly in the face of our fight for human rights,” former Trump administration ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley tweeted last month.
Haley and other critics hoped that withdrawing from the body would delegitimize its criticisms of Israel.
Human rights organizations and liberal groups have argued that by pulling out, the United States relinquished its influence over a host of global issues at the expense of just one issue seized on by politically influential pressure groups.
“The Human Rights Council gets a lot of flak, but it plays an important if sometimes tragic role tracking abuses in countries like Syria and Venezuela,” said Richard Gowan, U.N. director at the International Crisis Group. “At a time when big-power politics is snarling up the Security Council, the Human Rights Council offers the U.S. another platform to spotlight how nasty regimes are mistreating their citizens. Its immediate impact can be limited, but it is an important accountability mechanism.”
The Trump move also left the United States more exposed to criticism of its internal actions. Following the May police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man in Minneapolis, a number of African states came close to forcing through an unprecedented Human Rights Council resolution that demanded an investigation of racism in the United States. The countries ended up settling for a broader study of systemic racism after strenuous U.S. pushback, but the affair suggested a weakened U.S. hand after its departure from the council, the first time any country had left the body voluntarily.
Members of the council are elected for three-year terms and can’t serve consecutively for more than two terms. Trump withdrew from the body when the United States was halfway through its term. The U.N. General Assembly is set to elect new members later this year.
It is unclear whether the United States will run for full membership this year — an effort that might face resistance from China, which won a seat despite a campaign by the United States to stop it last year.
In a preview of the Biden administration’s priorities for the council, Blinken said the body 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.”
Blinken said the council was in need of reform, “including its disproportionate focus on Israel,” but said that “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.”