I understand why Joe Biden wants to rejoin the World Health Organization and the U.N. Human Rights Council. The new president is a multilateralist, which his predecessor certainly was not, and he’s eager to draw that contrast quickly and clearly. What I don’t understand: Why he wouldn’t ask these two U.N. agencies for at least a few reforms in exchange for America’s return.
The need for such reforms can hardly be in doubt. Start with the WHO. Would anyone give it a passing grade for its response to the global pandemic? Does anyone not comprehend that its leaders take their marching orders from China’s rulers? Was anyone surprised when Beijing-approved WHO investigators last week declared it “extremely unlikely” that the bat virus that has caused so much death and destruction around the world had its origins in a Wuhan laboratory that conducts secret experiments on bat viruses, including “gain of function” research aimed at giving viruses the ability to infect different species?
The WHO investigators came to this conclusion after spending all of three hours at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, with Chinese authorities denying them access to critical data. A spokesman for the investigators then suggested that the virus might have come to China in a shipment of frozen Australian beef. Last year, Chinese officials alleged that the virus could have been introduced into China by the U.S. Army. A Chinese government spokesman last week called for an investigation of American laboratories while state-controlled Chinese media accused the United States of putting the blame on China to “cover for its own ineptitude.”
To his credit, State Department spokesman Ned Price responded: “I don’t think there is any reasonable person who would argue that the coronavirus originated elsewhere” than China. But that raises a question: Why rejoin and again become the top funder of an organization under the control of unreasonable persons?
Let’s move on to the UNHRC, from which President Trump withdrew in 2018. The UNHRC was founded in 2006 to replace the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which had become a mutual admiration society for human rights violators. Membership had its privileges: immunity from criticism. The council was supposed to be an improvement over the commission. It turned out to be a clone instead.
The Peoples Republic of China was among the states voted into the UNHRC by the U.N. General Assembly last fall, despite evidence of genocide against the Uyghurs, the Turkic Muslim people of Xinjiang.
Other current members include Russia, whose leading opposition figure, having survived an assassination attempt, is now in prison; Venezuela, an oil-rich country, millions of whose impoverished citizens have fled; Cuba, responsible for much of the suffering in Venezuela; and Pakistan, where dwindling religious minorities (e.g., Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Ahmadi Muslims) suffer oppression.
It would be bad enough if the UNHRC were merely turning a blind eye to the abuses of its members. Among the other transgressions that have received little media or diplomatic attention: Emma Reilly, a professional staffer at the UNHRC, became aware that the names of individuals planning to testify about Beijing’s human rights violations were being secretly passed along to the Chinese delegation so that they and their families could be threatened, intimidated and perhaps eliminated. She reported this practice to U.N. authorities. They responded by saying they would never do such a thing, and that besides, they’ve stopped. And they’ve been attempting to fire her, despite the whistleblower protections the U.N. has on its books.
“We recognize that the Human Rights Council is a flawed body,” U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken diplomatically understated when announcing the administration’s intention to rejoin. He added: “When it works well, the Human Rights Council shines a spotlight on countries with the worst human rights records and can serve as an important forum for those fighting injustice and tyranny.”
But when has the UNHRC ever worked well? Can you think of one country whose record on human rights has improved thanks to the UNHRC? Does anyone believe that the UNHRC’s occasional resolutions on North Korea keep Kim Jong-un awake at night? Here’s a clue: At a UNHRC session last month, the North Korean envoy took the stage to accuse Australia of “deep-rooted racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia.”
Blinken said he believes that “the best way to improve the Council is to engage.” But the Obama administration, in which he served, spent eight years engaging with the UNHRC to no effect.
And, again, why not at least demand a few fundamental reforms in exchange for American participation?
For example, why not insist that the UNHRC stop treating Israel as its whipping boy, year after year issuing more condemnatory resolutions against the Jewish state than against any other country? The UNHRC aims to de-legitimize Israel, even as Iran’s rulers threaten and incite genocide against that nation—a violation of international law about which the UNHRC is silent.
I understand President Biden’s desire to shore up the international order which, not so long ago, could be characterized as liberal and based on equitable rules. But a growing number of the organizations that give the international order structure and substance are now dominated by despots.
That has increased the peril to the world’s health, while both distorting and eroding the very concept of human rights. You think most people around the world see through the lies? I’d be pleased to see evidence to suggest that.
Must we continue funding these organizations? Should we consider establishing alternatives? Are we not at least able to disabuse ourselves of the quaint notion that American engagement alone will—as if by wizardry—transform them?
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and a columnist for “The Washington Times.”