U.N. ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield diminishes America’s moral authority. That’s good news for China.
President Biden has pledged to compete vigorously against authoritarian regimes with ambitions to reshape the international order. But a string of self-flagellating comments by Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on race in America only does favors for rivals such as Beijing and Moscow.
On Wednesday, Thomas-Greenfield discussed the subject while outlining the U.S. campaign to rejoin the U.N. Human Rights Council at a candidates’ forum for countries seeking a seat in this October’s election.
“Systemic racism, regular targeting of the LGBTQIA+ community, and persistent discrimination against religious minorities, people with disabilities, indigenous people, and women and girls continues in every country around the world,” she said. “Including mine.”
“The United States is committed to meeting our human-rights obligations and ending discrimination in all its forms. We don’t profess to be a perfect union. But our goal is to get more perfect, more just, each and every day,” she added.
This focus on systemic racism dovetails with the Biden administration’s domestic political initiatives on race. After Thomas-Greenfield spoke, another ambassador, Erica Barks-Ruggles, elaborated on her comments. “We have taken commitments in this administration to look at deeply our own racism issues here in the United States,” she said, citing the Justice Department’s work to prosecute police officers “who have exhibited a pattern of abuse” and an executive order examining systemic racism in the United States. Now that domestic agenda is bleeding over into foreign policy in a harmful way.
The problem with placing this message at the center of the U.S. bid for the Human Rights Council is simple: The Biden administration is providing ammunition to authoritarian rivals who have weaponized the U.N.’s human-rights mechanisms. Those countries, which include China and Russia, have used their access to the U.N., including through their membership on the U.N. Human Rights Council, to deflect Western criticism of the atrocities their governments are currently carrying out.
The Biden administration’s answer to that challenge is to acknowledge U.S. flaws even more openly. In July, Blinken extended an open invitation to all U.N. human-rights special rapporteurs to visit and investigate racism and discrimination in the United States. He elaborated on that move, and on the State Department’s broader approach to discussing America’s flaws abroad, in a cable that Politico reported on. “That means we acknowledge our imperfections. We don’t sweep them under the rug. We confront them openly and transparently,” he wrote.
But there’s a difference between doing that in private discussions with U.S. allies and offering criticism of America’s record at international fora and in other settings. During an acrimonious U.S.–China summit in March, Yang Jiechi, the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign-affairs director, castigated the U.S. record on race: “The challenges facing the United States in human rights are deep-seated,” he said, accusing the U.S. of “deflecting the blame on somebody else in this world.” Blinken responded, acknowledging U.S. mistakes, and pointing to efforts to improve. “What we’ve done throughout our history is to confront those challenges openly, publicly, transparently, not trying to ignore them, not trying to pretend they don’t exist, not trying to sweep them under a rug.”
For her part, Thomas-Greenfield has made other comments sharply critical of America’s record on race, including when she argued in April that “the original sin of slavery weaved white supremacy into our founding documents and principles” in a speech to the National Action Network’s annual summit. Although she added that racism is a universal problem, and cited atrocities that the governments of Myanmar and China are carrying out against Rohingya and Uyghurs, respectively, her root-and-branch denunciations of America’s founding principles, just like her comments this morning, still diminish her ability to be an effective advocate for her country.
But speaking down about America’s handling of race to international audiences during a campaign for the U.N. Human Rights Council poses a problem similar to Blinken’s handling of Yang’s argument in Anchorage. The council has faced significant criticism since its founding in 2006, when it replaced the scandal-plagued U.N. Commission on Human Rights. As with its predecessor organization, nothing in the new Human Rights Council’s rules precludes serial human-rights violators from seeking and winning membership. Today, Russia and China rank among its many questionable members, and such countries as Syria, North Korea, and Belarus actively participate in council meetings.
The U.N.’s willingness to humor the perpetrators of human-rights violations is one of the reasons that the Trump administration abruptly withdrew from the body in 2018 (the other was the council’s anti-Israel bias), when the U.S. still held a seat, and it’s why the Biden administration’s campaign to rejoin it is incompatible with any serious effort to promote human rights. Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley led a push to reform the council from 2017, but after other members rejected even modest reform proposals, she orchestrated the U.S. exit from the body. Unsurprisingly, she says the Biden administration’s approach is a mistake.
“The U.N. Human Rights Council is a safe haven for the world’s worst human-rights violators, allowing brutal dictators and rogue regimes to cover for their abuses. The fact that the Biden administration would use it as a platform to criticize America, the freest, fairest country in the world, is a total disgrace,” Haley told National Review.
After all, Washington’s adversaries have found no issue to be more advantageous to them than racism in the United States. Last July, after the killing of George Floyd sparked a global reckoning with race, the Human Rights Council convened an emergency session to consider a resolution that would have established a special U.N. panel to investigate the racially motivated killings of people of African descent in the United States — an extraordinary measure that’s also been undertaken as a response to the Syrian Civil War and North Korea’s gulags. In the end, U.S. allies were able to remove portions singling out the United States. But not before U.S. adversaries, including North Korea, Venezuela, and Syria, among others, gleefully took the opportunity to condemn U.S. conduct, with cameras rolling.
More recently, during a periodic review of human rights in the United States last November, several countries recommended that the U.S. address systemic racism. Iran and Belarus suggested that Washington work to end systemic racism, while China urged U.S. officials to “address widespread police brutality and combat discrimination against African- and Asian-Americans.”
To be sure, these were only some of the hundreds of recommendations made by countries, including by U.S. allies, on a wide range of human-rights topics, but they demonstrate just how authoritarian regimes use the council and its mechanisms to their advantage. This includes the special rapporteurs to whom Blinken extended an invitation; at least one of those experts, Belarus’s Alena Douhan, is an out-and-out apologist for authoritarian governments who regularly speaks to their state media outlets. The Biden administration’s message about how America’s racial reckoning fits into its human-rights agenda only invites cynical responses from human-rights-violating regimes.
It’s not that the U.S. shouldn’t open itself to any criticism. The Trump administration’s stance toward the November 2020 review makes for an interesting example here: Although the administration had pulled the United States out of the Human Rights Council two years earlier, officials were not necessarily hostile to the review process. Andrew Bremberg, who represented the U.S. to U.N. institutions in Geneva under President Donald Trump, even told the Associated Press that scrutiny and debate are important and that “we are willing to openly acknowledge our shortcomings.” Some frank discussion about America’s historical injustices in a select few contexts abroad can even disarm insincere authoritarian trolling about systemic racism.
By contrast, the Biden administration has made openness about American racism one of the most, if not the single most, prominent features of its Human Rights Council campaign. Despite Blinken’s pledges to continue to strive to reform the body, judging by Thomas-Greenfield’s comments today, it doesn’t seem as though a serious attempt to do so is the administration’s central focus.
That’s especially good news for the Chinese Communist Party and other human-rights abusers who leverage progressive guilt about systemic racism as a smokescreen for their efforts to fundamentally reshape international institutions to their advantage.