Despite Claims, U.S. Engagement Did Not Improve Makeup of U.N. Human Rights Council

By Patrick Goodenough | November 22, 2019 | 4:53am EST
(Photos by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photos by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

( – The quality of the membership of the U.N. Human Rights Council did not tangibly improve when the United States was a member, despite claims to that effect during a Senate panel hearing this week.

At a hearing Wednesday focused on advancing U.S. interests at the United Nations, expert witnesses disagreed over the value of U.S. engagement in the Geneva-based HRC.

During the 13 years of the HRC’s existence, the Bush administration shunned it (after failing to get meaningful reforms inserted into its founding resolution); the Obama administration joined and engaged with it (despite failing in its efforts to improve it); and the Trump administration withdrew in June last year (after failing in its efforts to reform it.)

The two biggest concerns shared by all three administrations were the HRC poor membership – rights-abusers are regularly elected into its ranks – and its heavily-lopsided critical focus on Israel, which is the only country, out of 193 U.N. member-states, to be targeted in a country-specific permanent agenda item.

Both issues came up during the hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee responsible for multilateral institutions.

Better World Campaign president Peter Yeo and Amy Lehr, director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, made a case for U.S. engagement in the HRC, arguing that the council was improved when the U.S. was a member.

“When the U.S. was part of the HRC, the body’s membership included fewer of the worst human rights abusers, the number of resolutions targeting Israel dropped significantly, and the HRC passed more resolutions enabling oversight for abuses in places such as Syria,” Lehr said in her written testimony. “Many ascribe these positive developments to U.S. diplomacy.”

Lehr later repeated the assertion about an improved membership.

“Our [U.S.] membership appears to have at least made things meaningfully better,” she told the panel. “The quality of the countries that were able to get into the council was better – not good, but better.”

Yeo in his testimony acknowledged “valid criticisms” relating to the council’s “disproportionate focus on Israel, or the human rights records of some of its member states.”

“What I think is clear though is that when the U.S. reversed course and decided to engage actively with the Council from 2010-2017, the record of the Council improved markedly, in ways that benefited and advanced U.S. interests and core values.”

Heritage Foundation fellow Brett Schaefer in his testimony approved of the decision to exit the HRC.

“If an organization has proven to be critically flawed, such as the Human Rights Council, the U.S. should not lend it unwarranted prestige and credibility by rewarding it with financial support or participation,” he said.

Both Lehr and Yeo cited NGO findings to the effect that during the period of U.S. membership the proportion of country-specific resolutions critical of Israel dropped significantly.

Schaefer challenged that, saying that while the proportion of anti-Israel resolutions had dropped during the years of U.S. membership – because the HRC passed more resolutions focusing on other country situations – the number of such resolutions did not change.

“Every year they pass the same number of resolutions on Israel over and over and over again,” he said. (The largest number of Israel-specific resolutions passed in any one year was eight – in 2010, when the Obama administration was a member.)

Schaefer said while it was good that other countries with human rights problems were being addressed, countries like China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia “never had a Human Rights Council resolution passed condemning their human rights practices, despite ample evidence of them.”

‘Free’ versus ‘not free’ members

The four countries Schaefer cited have themselves been members of the HRC for most of its existence, each having been elected for multiple terms.

The claim that membership of the council has improved when the U.S. has been a member is not supported by the facts.

Washington-based Freedom House annually assesses countries’ records on political rights and civil liberties, and on that basis ranks them as “free,” “not free” or “partly free.”

The council has 47 members, elected for staggered three-year terms. Since the HRC began in 2006, the number of council members that are graded “free” has ranged from a high of 25 (53 percent of the total) to a low of just 18 (38 percent of the total).


The council had its largest contingent of “free” members in 2006, chosen in its inaugural election in May of that year, at a time when the U.S. was not engaged, and had been one of just four countries to vote against the HRC’s founding resolution the previous March.

The HRC’s smallest number of “free” members were those serving in 2016. Although the U.S. happened to be taking a mandatory one-year break from the council that year, the composition was the result of elections that had taken place in the fall of 2013, 2014 and 2015, when the U.S. was a member.

Apart from the high of 25 “free” members in 2006 and the low of 18 in 2016, there is no clear indication that the quality of the HRC makeup was substantially better during the years of U.S. engagement than when the U.S. was not engaged (see graph).

The number of “not free” members on the HRC each year has ranged from a high of 14 to a low of 8. The record-high 14 rights-abusing regimes serving on the council in 2018 and 2019 got their seats in elections held during the period of U.S. engagement, towards the end of the Obama administration and the beginning of the Trump administration.

Another relevant indicator relating to the council’s composition is the number of its seats controlled each year by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a bloc whose political agenda has often been at odds with those of liberal democracies.

The Islamic states have largely been responsible for the HRC’s disproportionate targeting of Israel, a push to outlaw “defamation” of religion, and other controversial priorities.


Of the council’s 47 members, the OIC has accounted for no fewer than 13 of them (27.6 percent of the total) and as many as 18 (38.3 percent of the total) in any one year.

U.S. engagement at the HRC has made no evident impact on the number of OIC members in its ranks. The years when the Islamic bloc controlled the largest number of seats – 18 – were 2010 and 2011, when the U.S. was also a member. After recent elections in New York, next year the will be 14 OIC members on the council, or 29.8 percent of the total.


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