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Biden Administration To Rejoin U.N. Human Rights Council

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Biden administration is taking a new approach to the United Nations. It wants to make sure it has a seat at the table at U.N. agencies that the Trump administration left. That includes the Human Rights Council in Geneva, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Trump administration denounced the Human Rights Council as a, quote, "cesspool of political bias." The Biden administration says the 2018 decision to pull out left a vacuum often filled by authoritarian countries. The diplomat representing the U.S. in Geneva now, Mark Cassayre, announced today that the U.S. is rejoining, first as an observer.

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MARK CASSAYRE: We know that this body has the potential to be an important forum for those fighting tyranny and injustice around the world. By being present at the table, we seek to ensure it can live up to that potential.

KELEMEN: There are many human rights crises that could be discussed there - a military coup in Myanmar, a crackdown on protesters in Belarus and Russia. Then there's Iran.

HADI GHAEMI: The repression is at an all-time high for the past 15, 16 years I have covered it.

KELEMEN: That's Hadi Ghaemi, who runs the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. He says the U.S. absence from the council was felt back in 2019 when there was a deadly crackdown on protesters in Iran.

GHAEMI: That was something that the Human Rights Council, if it had a center of gravity, should have immediately moved to an emergency session for it. It did not happen.

KELEMEN: The Trump administration blasted Iran for the violence, but Ghaemi says it would've been more effective if it had done so with others on the Human Rights Council. Trump's former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley accuses the council of covering for dictators and being biased against Israel. She says it's sad to see the Biden administration give it legitimacy.

Eileen Donahoe has a different perspective. She was Obama's ambassador there and said U.S. leadership made a difference.

EILEEN DONAHOE: We got a special rapporteur focus specifically on Iran. There was a commission of inquiry on North Korea. We got multiple special sessions on Syria, which meant that the focus on Israel decreased dramatically.

KELEMEN: Without the U.S. there, she said via Skype, China has upped its game, avoiding scrutiny of its crackdown in Hong Kong and what the U.S. calls a genocide against Muslim Uighurs in China's Xinjiang region.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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