New UN ambassador could restore US credibility on human rights in China and worldwide

Thomas-Greenfield should expand the coalition of nations willing to brave China's retaliation and condemn its abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet.

President Joe Biden's choice for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, should make promoting respect for human rights a top priority at the United Nations. That means delivering on her promise to aggressively counter what she described as China’s “malign efforts in New York” while restoring the United States role as a trusted voice on human rights.

Previous U.S. administrations have been inconsistent in their defense of human rights at the United Nations, a problem that grew exponentially under the Trump administration. Thomas-Greenfield  should chart a new strategy for the U.S. that would prioritize human rights issues based on their urgency and importance, not whether they involve governments deemed unfriendly to the U.S.

Thomas-Greenfield will want to abandon many policies the Trump administration pursued at the U.N., like stripping out references to women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights from U.N. texts. But Thomas-Greenfield does not need to throw out all Trump-led approaches. There is room for continuity on issues like China and Syria.

Monitor China's human rights abuses

The Senate is scheduled to start consideration of Thomas-Greenfield's nomination Monday. During her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she was peppered with questions about a 2019 speechshe gave that several senators criticized as unduly gentle toward the Chinese government. She dismissed that speech as a mistake and vowed to resist Beijing’s efforts to increase its influence at the U.N. “Their success depends on our continued withdrawal,” she said. “That will not happen on my watch.”

Human Rights Watch has documented Beijing’s systematic efforts to undermine U.N. human rights mechanisms in New York  and at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. China has engaged in manipulation of UN review processes, harassment, and intimidation of human rights defenders from China, as well as U.N. rights experts and staff. It has tried to use its growing influence to block the participation of independent civil society groups in U.N. meetings and conferences.

The Trump administration was right to support Britain and Germany in drawing attention to Beijing’s arbitrary detention of over a million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. The coalition of countries willing to brave Chinese retaliation and condemn its abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet at the U.N. has been growing, while the ranks of those willing to praise Beijing have been shrinking. Thomas-Greenfield should make expanding the coalition of nations willing to speak out against Beijing’s human rights abuses at the U.N. — and creating a standing international mechanism to monitor China’s ongoing grave rights violations — one of her chief goals. 

She should abandon the Trump administration’s selective approach to human rights – enthusiastically condemning its enemies’ abuses while ignoring rights violations of allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. She should fulfill her pledge to end the grotesque alliance with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other nations that opposed any mention of sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls at the U.N. and other multilateral forums.

She told senators that the U.S. — the U.N.’s biggest financial contributor – would start paying its dues again to help alleviate the U.N.’s financial troubles. It is good news that the Biden administration plans to resume funding for vital lifesaving U.N. agencies like the U.N. Population Fund, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, and the World Health Organization.

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Thomas-Greenfield should reject the previous administration’s green-lighting of the Israeli government’s abuses against Palestinians and speak out against illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory. She should walk back the claim she made in her confirmation hearing that campaigns to boycott Israel “verge on antisemitism,” which repeats the false narrative peddled by the Trump administration that boycotts of Israel are inherently anti-Semitic. She should oppose both real anti-Semitism and attempts to muzzle criticism of Israeli policies by those who spuriously label it anti-Semitism.

Make the most of US influence

Thomas-Greenfield’s suggestion that the U.S. will most likely run for a seat on the Human Rights Council indicates that America is ready to re-engage with the U.N.’s top rights body. The Trump administration withdrew in 2018 after a ham-fisted Human Rights Council “reform” effort led by then-Ambassador Nikki Haley garnered virtually no support. Its main focus was on muzzling criticism of Israeli abuses, not reforming the council.

But Thomas-Greenfield can and should follow the Trump administration's path on the humanitarian situation in Syria. In a farewell video, Thomas-Greenfield’s predecessor, Kelly Craft, pleaded for a renewal of cross-border aid to nongovernment-held Syria, a U.N. Security Council-mandated initiative that Russia has eviscerated with veto threats. The Biden administration should embrace that message and ensure that Syrians living in nongovernment-held areas have food and medicine to combat hunger and the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Finally, the United States should urge U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to be more vocal on human rights. Guterres is allergic to criticizing specific governments for rights abuses, effectively abandoning one of the few weapons in the secretary-general’s limited arsenal. He has been especially reluctant when it comes to China. Although he recently said the rights of all people in Xinjiang should be respected, he has never publicly acknowledged the massive scale of abuses against China’s Turkic Muslims.

Thomas-Greenfield has an opportunity to make the U.S. a credible voice on human rights at the U.N. We urge her and the Biden administration to make the most of it.

Louis Charbonneau is the UN director at Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter: @loucharbon  



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