US President-elect Joe Biden should move quickly after his January 20, 2021 inauguration to end the Trump administration’s sustained assault on the United Nations and restore funding for lifesaving UN agencies the outgoing administration sought to undermine.
The Trump administration stopped funding vital humanitarian agencies whose missions it viewed as hostile to its policies, such as the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). These agencies promote human rights by keeping countless people, especially women and girls, healthy and alive.
After a ham-fisted attempt to “reform” the UN Human Rights Council – a plan more focused on ending UN rebukes of Israeli abuses than improving the UN’s top rights body – the US withdrew completely in 2018. Amidst criticism of its own bungled response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Trump administration announced plans to exit the World Health Organization (WHO).
For years, the Trump administration has aggressively lobbied at the UN and other multilateral forums against any mention of sexual and reproductive health and rights for women and girls. Last year it threatened to veto a UN Security Council resolution on sexual violence in conflict because it mentioned women’s reproductive health services. It has also tried to use the UN to promote its fundamentally flawed Commission on Unalienable Rights, attempting to rewrite internationally accepted human rights obligations and protections.
But there are also areas for continuity. Both Presidents Barrack Obama and Donald Trump were right to highlight the Chinese government’s nefarious influence at the UN, which has only grown as the US has walked away from UN bodies.
Upon taking office, the Biden administration should promptly restore funding to UNRWA, UNFPA, and the WHO. It should support sexual and reproductive health and rights in all UN negotiations. It should fully participate in the Human Rights Council. At the UN Security Council, it should stop shielding countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and North Korea from criticism over rights abuses. And it should counter China’s anti-rights agenda at the UN through multilateral engagement and coalition-building.
The Trump administration, by focusing on the rights abuses of its enemies and ignoring those of allies, further damaged the US’ already shaky credibility. Biden’s victory opens the door to a new U.S. approach. By making human rights a priority in all its UN actions, the new administration might repair some of the damage.