After the recent revelations of war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine, the world is looking for ways to make life harder for President Vladimir Putin’s regime and to express its outrage. So when America’s ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield announced that the United States was going to ask the U.N. General Assembly to boot Russia off of the world body’s Human Rights Council, the initiative was widely applauded.
Given the atrocities committed by the Russians in their illegal war of aggression, removing Moscow from the UNHRC is certainly justified. But it’s also a completely meaningless gesture. After all, what’s the point of kicking out the Russians while China, which is committing genocide against the Uyghurs, or Cuba, another totalitarian Communist state, or Venezuela, Eritrea or Somalia— all of which are brutal dictatorships—are allowed to remain members in good standing there?
There’s no good answer to that question. But somehow, the United States remains more committed than ever to an institution that makes a mockery of the principles that it was created to uphold. Many of the nations that are elected by the U.N. General Assembly to serve on the council are rated by Freedom House as “not free.” Others are only “partly free.” Yet the body composed of representatives of some of the worst tyrannies in the world is treated as the arbiter of what is or isn’t a violation of human rights.
Yet the Biden administration, which rejoined the UNHRC after former President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of this farce, is still committed to it, as well as to the United Nations as a whole. Their argument is that by being inside the tent at the council, as opposed to outside of it, is far more productive and gives America a chance to help fix what ought to be a vital international institution rather than just complain about it.
Any slight to Russia and Putin right now is justified. And it will be humiliating if Russia, which once commanded the loyalty of many of the non-aligned nations that make up most of the 193 member states at the United Nations, is unable to prevent itself from being voted off the council.
If international sanctions backed by most of the world have done nothing to deter or convince Russia to pull out of Ukraine or change its behavior, then this move will be equally futile. Being deprived of their perch on the UNHRC will do no real harm to Russia or Putin. Nor will it stop the Russian military from committing more atrocities or return the land it has occupied. But it will help Biden and other U.N. defenders make a false claim about the prospects of reforming the world body.
If Biden’s team is able to get two-thirds of the countries on the U.N. General Assembly to vote with them to expel Russia, their assertion that real change at the world body and one of its most problematic agencies is possible.
But that claim will be dead wrong.
Removing Russia while letting China and other equally egregious human-rights offenders remain there won’t make them care about those who live in other countries where freedom is merely a dream. On the contrary, they will act as if they’ve proved how much they care about the subject when that is nowhere near the truth.
The UNHRC will not be deterred from devoting most of its effort to demonizing and delegitimizing democratic Israel, which remains the subject of a disproportionate amount of the Council’s time and condemnations. As I recently wrote, anti-Semitic invective and targeting of the sole Jewish state on the planet remain business as usual there. America’s complaints about this have repeatedly proved ineffective.
Worse than that, Biden’s return to the UNHRC sent a signal to it and other prejudiced U.N. offices that America wasn’t really serious about forcing them to change. The only thing that could possibly get its attention and force it to give up its addiction to targeting and besmirching Israel would be the withdrawal of U.S. funding.
The problem is that the foreign-policy establishment and the State Department bureaucracy remain wedded to the discredited idea that the United Nations is still capable of realizing the idealistic goals that were behind its founding. With the United Nations preparing a permanent star-chamber investigation of Israel that is intended to smear it and help make it a pariah, every gesture that reinforces the legitimacy of an institution that lost any shred of credibility long ago isn’t merely wrongheaded. It helps strengthen one of the principal engines of international anti-Semitism.
Yet somehow, even those who are Israel’s friends in this country haven’t yet learned this basic truth.
That was illustrated by the recent letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed by 68 U.S. senators from both major parties, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), that urged the Biden administration to use its presence on the council to, “address major human-rights problems around the world. An important step in this regard would be to redirect the wasteful use of funds and personnel on excessive devotion to disparaging Israel to allow the U.N. Human Rights Council to fairly promote human rights around the world.” The letter goes on to say that the United States should move to halt “discriminatory and unwarranted treatment of Israel” on the UNHRC.
The letter accurately diagnosed what was wrong with the UNHRC but not the remedy. Its language criticizing the institution was both noble and correct. But by acquiescing to the American return to the council and the idea that changing it is remotely possible, the letter, which reportedly was circulated by AIPAC, actually does more harm than good.
Far more insightful was a different letter signed by four Republican senators—Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.)—urging Blinken to withdraw from the UNHRC.
As that letter eloquently stated:
“Remaining on the council does not just legitimize vilification against Israel; it damages America’s international moral standing by allowing countries like Russia and China—which are actively perpetrating crimes against humanity and genocide at this very moment—to serve in international human-rights bodies. Furthermore, it downplays atrocities perpetrated by Cuba, Venezuela, Libya and Eritrea by suggesting their leaders can provide human-rights leadership on the council.”
It’s long past time that even those who understand that the United Nations is a toxic waste dump of Jew-hatred and rationalizations of tyranny stop attempting to correct an institution that is incapable of reform. It is structurally set up to enable these injustices rather than to stop them. Engaging with it and paying for it—22 percent of its funds are provided by the United States—is an ongoing disaster that does much harm and no good.
The UNHRC is an example of how bad the United Nations has become. Removing one bad apple like Russia from it won’t repair what’s broken, but it will allow U.N. apologists to pretend that it is heading in the right direction. That even many supporters of Israel think that acquiescing to this state of affairs or supporting further American participation in these travesties is justified is an appalling mistake that only makes the situation worse rather than better.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.