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Human Rights

The United States Rejoins UN Human Rights Council: An Important Step to Combat North Korean Human Rights Abuses

The U.S. Department of State issued a statement on February 8 from Secretary of State Antony Blinken announcing that:

The Biden administration has recommitted 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 reengage immediately and robustly with the UN Human Rights Council.

Blinken’s statement noted 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,” but he added that the Trump administration’s withdrawal from participation in the council “did nothing to encourage meaningful change” but rather “created a vacuum of U.S. leadership which countries with authoritarian agendas have used to their advantage.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council is a subsidiary organization that functions under the UN General Assembly. The Council is composed of 47 countries elected by the General Assembly to focus attention on international human rights issues and make recommendations to the General Assembly. The 193 members of the United Nations elect the 47 countries, which serve staggered terms on the Human Rights Council. Countries serve for a three-year term and can only serve two terms consecutively. UN member states not formally on the Council still participate in Council activities and discussions. The UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council meet in New York City, but the Human Rights Council meets in Geneva, Switzerland.

The precursor of the UN Human Rights Council was the UN Commission on Human Rights (1946-2006), which was reorganized and restructured into the UN Human Rights Council in 2006. During the George W. Bush administration, the United States did not seek membership on the Council, but it did participate to some extent for two years in its activities. In 2008, the Bush administration publicly announced that it would no longer maintain observer status in the Council. However, when former president Barack Obama assumed office in 2009, the United States joined the Human Rights Council and was an active participating member. The United States was elected to Council membership in 2009 and served two terms (2009-2015). After a year of not serving on the Council, the United States was reelected to the Council again in 2017. In June 2018, a year and a half into the Donald Trump administration, the United States again withdrew from participation in the Human Rights Council. The United States’ principal justification for withdrawing from participation in the Human Rights Council was that the Council inappropriately focused on Israel and Palestinian issues because of the large number of Islamic countries which are critical of Israel.

Although the United States could participate in the Human Rights Council, make statements, and sponsor Council resolutions without being one of the 47 members, during the last two and a half years of the Trump administration, all participation or involvement with the Council ceased. The United States did not commend or even note when the Human Rights Council took action totally consistent with and supportive of U.S. human rights positions.

Human Rights Council Is the Leading International Voice against North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses

Although the Human Rights Council deals with a wide range of international human rights issues, the organization has been particularly active and involved in calling for improvement in North Korea’s human rights abuses. In 2004, a special rapporteur for North Korea human rights issues was appointed, and he reports to both the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly annually on the abuses and problems of North Korea’s human rights.

The current special rapporteur is Tomás Ojea Quintana, a prominent Argentinian human rights attorney and professor of law. He was appointed by the Human Rights Council in 2016 to succeeding Marzuki Darusman (Indonesia) who had served in the role since 2010. Darusman is a prominent attorney and former Indonesian prosecutor general (the equivalent of the U.S. attorney general).

Just a few months ago, the special rapporteur presented a detailed report to the General Assembly outlining the human rights problems resulting from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on North Korea and the problems of defectors attempting to leave the North. In his report to the Human Rights Council in March 2020, Ojea Quintana described the treatment of women in North Korea. Such reports from an internationally recognized legal expert gives them credibility and weight. The discussion and review of these reports by the Human Rights Council has created significant international pressure on North Korea for its human rights abuses.

The Council also requires all UN member countries to face a human rights review every five years—the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. North Korea has participated in the self-evaluation of its human rights record (a “bit” rosy by all measures), but it also faces critical comments and questions from many other UN member countries. This has been something of an incentive for North Korea to make at least minimal human rights progress in some areas, and it has made advances in non-sensitive areas such as for people with disabilities.

The report of the UN Commission of Inquiry into North Korea’s human rights (2013-2014) was probably the most important critical analysis of the country’s human rights yet produced. This report and the actions that followed its release were milestones in the effort to move North Korea to improve its appalling human rights record. Two elements gave the report great credibility. First, the criticism came from the Human Rights Council, internationally recognized as the leading international voice on human rights. Second, members of the commission were citizens of Australia, Indonesia, and Serbia. This was not a “hostile” U.S. effort, but was the work of an international group of distinguished representatives from three countries, each from a different region of the world.

U.S. Return to the Human Rights Council Is Important

The United States will not initially be one of the 47 voting members of the UN Human Rights Council. Only about one in four UN members are on the Council. Nevertheless, the United States can speak on issues under discussion by the Council and can sponsor resolutions being considered by the organization. The views of the United States on issues under consideration are important and can positively influence the outcome. A voting membership is important, but active participation in discussion and sponsorship is an equally valuable element of influence that the United States can and now will be able to use.

It is probable that the United States will become a member of the Council during the next membership election. U.S. participation gives credibility to the organization because of the United States’ strong commitment to international human rights. Washington’s voice is an important one.

One of President Joseph Biden’s most frequently quoted statements critical of his predecessor’s foreign policy is that “America first has made America alone.”  Engagement with the UN Human Rights Council is an important part of U.S. support for global human rights policies and a way to expand the influence of our values by working with other countries in the Council for international human rights.

North Korea considers our concern for the human rights of its citizens to be part of a “hostile” U.S. policy toward the North. When the United States joins cooperatively with other countries of the United Nations in pressing for progress on human rights—in North Korea and in many other countries—this is not a hostile U.S. policy, but acceptance of international standards that most other countries of the United Nations accept.