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US won’t participate in UN Human Rights Council without reforms, Tillerson says

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo.Toru Hanai/ AFP/ Getty Images

UNITED NATIONS — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the United States will not continue participating in the Human Rights Council unless the UN rights agency undergoes “considerable reform.’’

He gave no time frame for reforms to take place, saying in a letter to eight non-governmental organizations obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press that the US will continue to participate in the council’s current session in Geneva.

The eight organizations, which focus on human rights and support for the United Nations, had written to Tillerson asking the United States to maintain its engagement with the rights council. He urged them to encourage reforms in the council, saying that ‘‘would be most helpful.’’


The secretary of state’s letter was first reported by Foreign Policy magazine.

The United States has long complained that the Geneva-based Human Rights Council unduly focuses on Israel and includes member countries with poor rights records.

In a Feb. 9 letter to Tillerson, the eight organizations said that since the United States began participating in the rights body in 2009 ‘‘it has been instrumental in making the council a more effective body.’’

They pointed to the council’s shift from disproportionate attention to Israel and inadequate attention to some of the worst human rights violations and violators to its ‘‘spotlight on rogue regimes and terrorists’’ and its commissioning of independent investigations that have exposed ‘‘serious human rights abuses’’ by North Korea, Iran, Syria, the Islamic State extremist group, and Boko Haram.

The proportion of council resolutions and special sessions devoted to Israel has also ‘‘significantly declined,’’ the organizations said.

The United States served two consecutive terms on the Human Rights Council from 2009-2015, took a mandatory year off, and was elected to a three-year term in October 2016.

In that election, Russia was defeated for a seat on the 47-member council. But its members include many countries with poor rights records including Burundi, Congo, Cuba, Venezuela, China and Saudi Arabia.


The organizations said that however ‘‘imperfect’’ the council is, ‘‘this is a critical time for the United States to continue its participation and funding, while redoubling efforts to strengthen the council’s performance.’’

‘‘Disengagement from the council would leave a vacuum,’’ their letter said, ‘‘and states that do not share our nation’s interests and values would fill it, resulting in less condemnation of the world’s worst human rights abusers, more action directed against Israel, and more repressive governments gaining membership in the council.’’

It stressed that ‘‘none of these outcomes serves America’s interests.’’

In his March 8 letter of reply, Tillerson said ‘‘we continue to evaluate the effectiveness of the UN Human Rights Council.’’

‘‘We may not share a common view on this, given the make-up of the membership,’’ he said. ‘‘While it may be the only such organization devoted to human rights, the Human Rights Council requires considerable reform in order for us to continue to participate.’’

But Tillerson said the United States will pursue its ‘‘priority objectives’’ in the current session — renewing the Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria and mandates for special investigators on Iran, North Korea, Myanmar, torture, and freedom of expression.

It will also seek to renew the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, ensure continued UN assistance to promote accountability in Sri Lanka for crimes during its civil war, promote freedom of belief and combat religious intolerance, and oppose the council’s ‘‘biased agenda’’ on Israel, he said.


The eight organizations that sent the letter were the Better World Campaign, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Freedom House, Freedom Now, Human Rights First, Human Rights Campaign, Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights and the United Nations Association of the United States of America.