Fact Sheet: Reforming the Human Rights Council

U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York, New York
December 14, 2020

Fact Sheet: Reforming the Human Rights Council

“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. The Human Rights Council enables abuses by absolving wrongdoers through silence and falsely condemning those who have committed no offense.”
– Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, June 19, 2018

From the Commission on Human Rights to the Human Rights Council:

  • The Commission on Human Rights was established in 1946 to address human rights abuses. Drawing its purpose directly from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it was tasked with shedding light on human rights abuses around the world.
  • The Commission failed to uphold this mandate. The UN’s own bureaucratic inertia combined with poorly designed membership rules and regional alliances that sought to undermine the Commission’s work gradually reduced it to what legendary human rights advocate Congressman Tom Lantos called a body, “Orwellian in its character.”
  • The General Assembly voted in 2006 to eliminate the Commission on Human Rights and replace it with the Human Rights Council, which in theory was supposed to improve upon the Commission’s many deficiencies. However, the United States voted against the resolution because its reforms did not go far enough. They failed to address bias against Israel or to credibly strengthen criteria for membership.
  • U.S. Administrations of both political parties have recognized the Human Rights Council’s deficiencies, especially its anti-Israel bias, weak membership criteria, and non-competitive elections. The Bush Administration chose not to participate in the Council, whereas the Obama Administration tried to influence the body from within. Ultimately, since 2006, no comprehensive reforms have been adopted, let alone taken up for consideration by the Council or General Assembly.

The Trump Administration calls for reform and accountability:

  • The Trump administration took a long hard look at the Council, and didn’t like what it saw.  As President Trump stated in his first address to the United Nations in 2017: “it is a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations that some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council.” At that time, membership included human rights abusers like China, Cuba, and Venezuela.
  • United States Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley undertook a yearlong effort at the beginning of her tenure to build support for Human Rights Council reforms. The United States met with more than 125 countries and circulated detailed reform proposals.
  • Yet America’s commonsense ideas to improve the Human Rights Council were not taken up. The United States made the principled decision in June 2018 to withdraw from the Human Rights Council. Maintaining the status quo undermined human rights far more than it helped. As Secretary Pompeo said then, “When a so-called Human Rights Council cannot bring itself to address the massive abuses in Venezuela and Iran, and it welcomes the Democratic Republic of Congo as a new member, the Council ceases to be worthy of its name. Such a Council, in fact, damages the cause of human rights.”

Commonsense ideas to improve and reform the Human Rights Council:

  • Since withdrawing from the Human Rights Council, the United States has continued to champion human rights. We have urged our likeminded partners to seriously address the Council’s failures by advancing comprehensive reform.
  • It would be a grave mistake for the United States to return to the Council before it is reformed. History tells us that reforming the Human Rights Council from within does not work. The ideas below are commonsense and have broad and bipartisan support. As the General Assembly’s comprehensive review of the Human Rights Council begins in 2021, the ideas proposed below should form the basis of future discussions.
  • Any comprehensive reform effort must include three crucial elements: (1) stricter membership criteria; (2) improved elections; and the (3) elimination of bias.
    • Stricter Membership Criteria: Members of a body dedicated to promoting human rights and protecting human rights defenders should not include nations with deplorable human rights records such as Cuba, China, or Venezuela. Yet these nations are eligible to join the Council and many of them do. In October, Cuba, China, and Russia won seats on the Human Rights Council. Potential reforms to strengthen membership criteria include:
      • Ineligibility lists – Preventing member states currently under investigation or sanction by bodies like the Security Council, ILO or Human Rights Council from seeking seats on the Council. The General Assembly or Security Council could also maintain their own ineligibility lists. Human rights and international security are inextricably linked, and such a list would be consistent with the Security Council’s mandate to address threats to international peace and security.
      • OHCHR review and public forums – Mandating a comprehensive public assessment of a member-state’s human rights record as well as requiring their participation in public forums as prerequisites for their candidacy to the Human Rights Council. These processes could be overseen by the Office of the High Commissioner, with input and participation from non-governmental organizations. These changes would subject all candidates to greater scrutiny and discourage nations whose current impulse for membership is simply to suppress awareness and discussion of their own human rights records.
    • Improved Elections: Elections for seats on the Council must be credible and competitive. Far too often, regional slates are uncontested, and there is reason to believe that coercion and pressure play a role in determining which nations appear on regional ballots. Potential reforms in this area include:
      • Altering election thresholds: Increasing the threshold for election from an absolute majority to a 2/3 majority would reduce the opportunity for human rights abusers to win seats on the Council. In addition to this, lowering the threshold for removing human rights abusers from the current 2/3 majority to an absolute majority would in turn make it easier to hold sitting members accountable.
      • Increasing competition: Requiring regional blocs to propose more member states for election than there are open seats on the ballot or including a “none of the above” option for member states to select if they do not like the options put forward by a regional group. For example, if a “none of the above” option received more votes than a member state, then they would be removed from consideration and the region would have to put forward a new candidate. Neither of these options would be a panacea, but they would diminish the effect of coercion and help ensure that member states have credible options for their vote.
      • Increasing participation of smaller states: Encouraging the participation of smaller states, that can contribute to the Human Rights Council but may not have the extensive campaign apparatus of larger counterparts. We should encourage more countries that have not yet served on the Council to run and explore new ways to facilitate the participation of smaller countries.
    • Removing Bias: The Human Rights Council must have the ability scrutinize all nations. But what is not acceptable is turning a blind eye to mass detention camps in Xinjiang and the bombing of civilians in Syria while subjecting certain countries to unfair scrutiny.
      • Addressing Anti-Israel Bias: Eliminating Agenda Item 7, which unfairly targets Israel. No other country is similarly targeted with a standing agenda item – only Israel. Agenda Item 7 has a single purpose – to provide a platform for nations determined to isolate Israel and damage its international standing. It does nothing to advance dialogue, human rights, or the cause of peace, and it must go.