Why the UN Human Rights Council Can’t Be Reformed

Feb. 19 2021

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.

Read more at Fathom

More about: Antony Blinken, Human Rights, U.S. Foreign policy, UNHRC, United Nations

Leaked Emails Point to an Iranian Influence Operation That Reaches into the U.S. Government

Sept. 27 2023

As the negotiations leading up to the 2015 nuclear deal began in earnest, Tehran launched a major effort to cultivate support abroad for its positions, according to a report by Jay Solomon:

In the spring of 2014, senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials initiated a quiet effort to bolster Tehran’s image and positions on global security issues—particularly its nuclear program—by building ties with a network of influential overseas academics and researchers. They called it the Iran Experts Initiative. The scope and scale of the IEI project has emerged in a large cache of Iranian government correspondence and emails.

The officials, working under the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, congratulated themselves on the impact of the initiative: at least three of the people on the Foreign Ministry’s list were, or became, top aides to Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy on Iran, who was placed on leave this June following the suspension of his security clearance.

In March of that year, writes Solomon, one of these officials reported that “he had gained support for the IEI from two young academics—Ariane Tabatabai and Dina Esfandiary—following a meeting with them in Prague.” And here the story becomes particularly worrisome:

Tabatabai currently serves in the Pentagon as the chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, a position that requires a U.S. government security clearance. She previously served as a diplomat on Malley’s Iran nuclear negotiating team after the Biden administration took office in 2021. Esfandiary is a senior advisor on the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that Malley headed from 2018 to 2021.

Tabatabai . . . on at least two occasions checked in with Iran’s Foreign Ministry before attending policy events, according to the emails. She wrote to Mostafa Zahrani, [an Iranian scholar in close contact with the Foreign Ministry and involved in the IEI], in Farsi on June 27, 2014, to say she’d met Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal—a former ambassador to the U.S.—who expressed interest in working together and invited her to Saudi Arabia. She also said she’d been invited to attend a workshop on Iran’s nuclear program at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. . . .

Elissa Jobson, Crisis Group’s chief of advocacy, said the IEI was an “informal platform” that gave researchers from different organizations an opportunity to meet with IPIS and Iranian officials, and that it was supported financially by European institutions and one European government. She declined to name them.

Read more at Semafor

More about: Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy