The U.S. Rejoins the UN Human Rights Council

by Peggy McGuinness

The U.S. officially took its seat at the UN Human Rights Council on Monday.  Yes, it will be joining a deeply flawed institution that, under its prior form as the HR Commission included in its membership Zimbabwe and Sudan* –hardly paragons of human rights compliance.  But it is better for the U.S. to be inside the institution, working to bring about procedural reform and a renewed focus on the best practices of interstate human rights compliance, than on the outside.  Here is an excerpt from Assistant Secretary for International Organizations Esther Bremmer’s statement to the Council, which outlines four themes of U.S. engagement with the Council as “universality, dialogue, principle and truth”:

The United States is pleased to join the rest of our colleagues on the Human Rights Council. It is with a sense of mutual respect that we take our place on the Council, next to the friends and partners we will work with to forge common ground on one of the most fundamental roles of the state: to protect and advance human rights.

The charge of the Human Rights Council ties closely to the United States’ own history and culture.

Freedom of speech, expression and belief. Due process. Equal rights for all. These enduring principles have animated some of the proudest moments in America’s journey. These human rights and fundamental freedoms are, in effect, a part of our national DNA, just as they are a part of the DNA of the United Nations.

And yet, we recognize that the United States’ record on human rights is imperfect. Our history includes lapses and setbacks, and there remains a great deal of work to be done.

But our history is a story of progress. Indeed, my presence here today is a testament to that progress, as is the Administration I serve. It is the President’s hope and my own that we can continue that momentum at home and around the world.

Our decision to join the Human Rights Council was not entered into lightly, and was reached based on a clear and hopeful vision of what can be accomplished here. Our vision is not merely made in America, but rather reflects the aspirations embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the mandate of the Human Rights Council itself.

* Post corrected to reflect that Sudan and Zimbabwe have not been members of the new HR Council, but were members of the predecessor UN HR Commission.  Thanks to Joanna Harrington for the correction.

4 Responses

  1. While I agree that there is need for further reforms concerning the Human Rights Council, neither Sudan nor Zimbabwe are members of the 47-member council. (Perhaps that specific criticism relates to the former and now abolished Commission on Human Rights.) The Council’s membership records can be found here:

    It should also be noted that some attention has been paid to the human rights records of states that want to be Council members, with Belarus failing to win a seat in 2007, and Sri Lanka’s failure to win reelection in 2008, being viewed (at least by some) as an example of some change from the old Commission days.

    Best regards.

  2. A point of correction, neither Zimbabwe nor Sudan has ever served on the Human Rights Council. See Indeed, their membership in the Commission on Human Rights was a large part of what prompted its dissolution and the creation of the Human Rights Council. Despite its faults, the Council has never included Sudan, Zimbabwe, Iran, or Somalia, despite the assertions in the US press – and this blog.

  3. Thanks for the corrections on Sudan and Zimbabwe. I was indeed thinking of the membership in the predecessor Commission.  (One of the perils of quick blogging while on the road!)  And yes, it was indeed their presence — among others– that prompted earlier U.S. objections to the old Commission structure and  reform of the Commission into the new Council.  But I do think it is important to think of the Council as the institutional continuation — albeit with important reforms — of the Commission and to work to improve the significant historical failings of the legacy institution, which went beyond membership and voting structures.  See my post above on the ways in which democratic states can do better by reengaging and addressing those issues. I appreciate the careful reading and correction.

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