What you need to know:
- Beijing is a current member of the council, whose members are elected in a three-year staggered format. But China has in the recent past been accused of targeting minority communities in Xinjiang, the north-western region occupied by the Uighurs.
The United States is returning to the UN Human Rights Council in a change of policy aimed at containing China’s influence, especially in Asia and Africa.
And it appears President Joe Biden is reversing another of his predecessor’s policy which saw Washington become the first member to leave the council voluntarily.
On Monday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said his country will be returning to the council to reform it from within.
“The UN Human Rights Council is flawed and needs reform, but walking away won’t fix it,” Mr Blinken said on Monday after Washington formally re-entered the organisation it left in 2018.
“The best way to improve the council, so it can achieve its potential, is through robust and principled US leadership. Under [President] Biden, we are reengaging and ready to lead,” he tweeted.
The US had quit the council, a 47-member body of the UN that looks into rights records of members, accusing its members of playing politics by targeting US allies like Israel.
Critics also charged that the council is usually unserious about wrongs as it includes countries like Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Russia and China, which rights watchdogs have accused of violating civil liberties.
China's minority communities
Yet in returning to the council, Mr Blinken said Washington wants to pursue rights and equality as a focus of its foreign policy. In the end, however, China may be the actual target.
Beijing is a current member of the council, whose members are elected in a three-year staggered format. But China has in the recent past been accused of targeting minority communities in Xinjiang, the north-western region occupied by the Uighurs.
We will vigorously pursue those goals, to benefit our fellow Americans and marginalised communities everywhere.
Last week, Mr Blinken told an interview on MSNBC’s show, Andrea Mitchell Reports, that Washington’s relationship with Beijing is ‘complicated’, but said the US will approach China from a position of “strength” - by reaching out to old allies and defending human rights and democracy.
“That strength, I think, comes from having strong alliances, something China does not have; actually engaging in the world and showing up in these international institutions, because when we pull back, China fills in and then they’re the ones writing the rules and setting the norms of these institutions,” Mr Blinken said, and suggested rights, democracy and defence will be packed into one.
These include "standing up for our values when China is challenging them, including in Xinjiang against the Uyghurs or democracy in Hong Kong; making sure our military is postured so that it can deter Chinese aggression; and investing in our own people so that they can fully compete", he said.
So could that be packed? A policy briefing by Washington think-tank, US Institute for Peace, found out that Washington could counter Chinese influence in Asia by strengthen alliances with Beijing rivals such as India.
“The United States will need to advance the partnership at India’s pace and be patient with incremental steps,” the institute said in the report published a few weeks before Mr Biden took charge.
“But strategic pressure from Beijing will likely make the case in New Delhi for bolder moves, such as hastening the modernisation of India’s military, conducting joint military exercises, making the US-Australia-Japan-India Quad militarily effective, and expanding intelligence cooperation and military interoperability to get closer to Washington and other democratic partners.”
Maj-Gen (Rtd) Lloyd Austin, the new US Defence Secretary alluded to this at his vetting session, saying he will seek to enhance military relations with India.
“My overarching objective for our defense relationship with India would be to continue elevating the partnership…to ensure the US and Indian militaries can collaborate to address shared interests," he said at the Congressional meeting last month.
India may be attractive for now since China and Pakistan, India’s nemesis, are closer.
“Although the United States and China will each maintain working relations with India and Pakistan, more than at any point in history, Washington and New Delhi have similar outlooks that diverge from the overlapping views of Beijing and Islamabad,” the Institute suggested.
But defence, counterterrorism and human rights may be inseparable.
The institute found that Beijing’s stance on Xinjiang makes war on terror difficult, especially since the US sees China’s counter-terrorism as a rights violation. China has received support from a number of African countries, some of which also benefit from the US counter-terrorism.
At the UN Human Rights Council, Washington had argued it was consistently made up of countries protecting China’s own alleged role. But Washington is also an ally of Saudi Arabia, another one accused of violations but which sits on the council.
Last week, the Biden administration said he will stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which leads a coalition against Houthis in Yemen, following claims of targeting civilians.