Last week, the U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, announced that he intends to bring America back into the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), where it will join representatives of some of the world’s most brutal despots. Although Blinken was straightforward about addressing the body’s problems, including the fact that it tends to ignore the most serious human-rights abuses while obsessively producing condemnations of Israel, he argued that American involvement will be “the best way to improve the council.” Gerald Steinberg believes this hope is poorly placed:
The structure of the UNHRC is largely impervious to change, reflecting the nature of the UN with its 193 member states, and the built-in majority for autocracies; the dictatorships Russia, China, Cuba, and Venezuela are among the [council’s] current members.
The [anti-Israel] bias is also built into the permanent agenda, specifically item seven, which concerns “the human-rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories,” ensuring that every quarterly session will include attacks against Israel. No other single issue, conflict, or country has its own permanent agenda item, and it is under this framework that the majority of the council’s anti-Israel reports and resolutions are adopted. Here again, the ability of the U.S. (joined perhaps by a few courageous allies, depending on the council’s membership in a particular year) to change this is essentially non-existent.
The lack of allies for change, particularly among Western Europeans, is another obstacle. In most anti-Israel votes, the best that the EU representatives can agree on is to abstain, which has very little significance.
The structural factors are also reflected in the political biases of many of the officials and employees who make up its secretariat. As noted, in order to be elected, candidates [for these staff positions] must be ideologically acceptable to the majority of UN member states, as in the case of the current high commissioner, Michelle Bachelet.
It is these permanent staff members that dictate the council’s agenda and compose the reports that inform its work.