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The Geneva Observer Briefing

Human Rights Front and Center

By Philippe Mottaz and Jamil Chade - The Geneva Observer

February 9, 2021


This is a slightly modified version of The Geneva Observer February 9, 2021 Briefing. To receive our Briefing directly in your inbox, please register here.


With yesterday's announcement ( February 8 )that it plans to rejoin the Human Rights Council, the Biden administration is making good on its promise to put human rights front and center of its foreign policy. Today in The Geneva Observer, we analyze the significance for International Geneva of the US return to the UN body and comment on the challenges the young administration—pun intended—faces in its stated pursuit to reinvigorate multilateral diplomacy. In a companion piece, we also continue our discussion about the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI).

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken

“We recognize 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. However, our withdrawal in June 2018 did nothing to encourage meaningful change, but instead created a vacuum of US leadership, which countries with authoritarian agendas have used to their advantage” is how Secretary of State Blinken justified Washington's decision to return to the Human Rights Council, first as an observer before formally applying for a seat in the fall.

Through the HRC's spokesperson, the new president of the Human Rights Council, Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan—whose nomination was bitterly opposed by China, Russia and Saudi-Arabia—told The G|O: “I welcome the announcement by the United States at the Council meeting today (February 8) concerning their re-engagement with the Human Rights Council. Constructive engagement by all members of the international community at the Human Rights Council on matters that affect us all is vital. Such engagement greatly increases the Council's ability to deliver its mandate of promoting and protecting all human rights aimed at improving all people's lives around the globe.”

Nikki Haley, former US Ambassador to the UN, for her part tweeted: “Sad to see the Biden admin legitimize an organization that has become a farce to human rights advocates around the world.”

The Human Rights Council Room in The Palace of Nations in Geneva
The speed at which the new US administration moves on the human-rights front indicates that it considers the HRC a major strategic asset in pursuing its multilateral diplomatic engagement on human rights.

History, however, tells a very different story. While many human rights defenders here and elsewhere recognize the Council's shortcomings, there remains a broad consensus in the human rights community that the Council still serves its cause and that a high-level engagement from the US is welcome. The sustained paralysis of the UN Security Council through the veto power of China and Russia leaves the HRC, notwithstanding its institutional flaws, the main forum to denounce the most egregious human rights violators and to organize likeminded members to promote human rights initiatives.

The speed at which the new US administration moves on the human-rights front indicates that it considers the HRC a major strategic asset in pursuing its multilateral diplomatic engagement on human rights. With Anthony Blinken as top American diplomat and Linda Thomas-Greenfield at the UN—her confirmation is imminent—such high-level engagement can be predicted, including the swift designation of several experienced diplomats at the US mission in the field of human rights, trade, and arms control.


With the withdrawal of the Geneva Consensus Declaration and the end of the “Mexico City policy,” the HRC announcement is an additional step in Washington's prioritizing human rights, in a complete reversal of the previous administration's policies. It is expected that the Biden administration will soon be lifting the sanctions imposed by the previous administration on the International Criminal Court. These sanctions extended to ICC personnel, including its Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.

Sources close to the ICC and the Biden administration tell The Geneva Observer that the text revoking the executive order is “written” and that it is a question of “when, not if” it will be signed. The abrogation of the order is a controversial issue in the US, where bipartisan opposition to the ICC runs high in Congress. Last year, close to 300 members of Congress wrote former Secretary of State Pompeo urging him to resist “the ICC politically motivated investigations” into the US and Israel. The letter was prompted by the ICC's decision to authorize formal investigations into possible war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza in 2014 and by American troops in Afghanistan. Neither Israel nor the US is a party to the Rome Statute that established the ICC. Last Friday (February 5), in a 2-to-1 decision, the ICC ruled that its jurisdiction extends to Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.


"My Multilateralism"

Applauded by many here, the return of the US to the multilateral world is also a source of interrogations. "Unfortunately, the world doesn't organize by itself" is one of Tony Blinken's favorite utterance. Indeed. But it has changed in fundamental ways since Democrats left office in 2017. Populist and nationalist forces have gained power in several countries. Authoritarian leaders have exploited technology to become more assertive domestically and internationally. So has America's perception abroad. The Biden's administration's swift reversal and the unraveling of Donald Trump's foreign policy, mostly so far by executive order, is not without revealing how consistency has potentially disappeared from American foreign policy. Fickleness has arrived. With a tied Senate, Joe Biden's margin of maneuver in foreign policy is limited. America's allies – and rivals– have taken note. The US moral standing has also suffered in an unprecedented way, making it difficult for the US to simply come back and sit at the multilateral table. Joseph Stiglitz's quote, "The US, after all, has shown itself to be an untrustworthy ally," has gone viral in International Geneva.

Besides announcing its return to the Human Rights Council, the White House also lifted its veto on the Nigerian candidate to lead the WTO. It confirmed its commitment to join COVAX, expressed by Vice-president Kamala Harris herself calling Dr Tedros.

Washington's re-entry into the multilateral orbit, however, also comes with conditions and demands. The US will be rather blunt in wanting to reform the system according to its own interests. At the HRC, the Biden's administration pressure on its friends and its allies will be felt. China's positions will be vigorously opposed, but so will the demands to protect the Council from the accusation it is too focused on Israel. Using the HRC to rebuild alliances will also come with positive nods to Europeans. LGBT issues, access to reproductive rights, and greater attention to the situation of women will gain track on the American agenda.

At the WTO, where the Biden administration's support for Ngozi Okonjo-Iwaela guarantees she will be the first woman and the first African heading the organization, American pressure for reform of the Appellate Body. While not using the nuclear option favored by Trump, who paralyzed the dispute settlement system, Washington will keep pushing for a thorough review of the mechanism supported by both Democrats and Republicans.

Nor will there be much room for rapprochement with China in the WTO. The US government will insist that Beijing no longer be treated as a developing economy, which gives it more room for policies to support exports and its companies.

It is no coincidence that Biden's first international calls were with Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, and Boris Johnson. The three major multilateral upcoming 2021 gatherings will be in Europe - the G7 in the UK, G20 in Italy, and COP26 in Scotland. The reconstruction of the US multilateral diplomacy, thus, will demand first the reconstruction of strong ties with Europe.

Otherwise, Washington's efforts might amount to impose multilateralism on its terms. An obvious paradox.