China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia Set to Return to U.N. Human Rights Council

By Patrick Goodenough | April 28, 2009 | 5:40 AM EDT

The U.N. Human Rights Council meets in Geneva. (U.N. Photo by Jean-Marc Ferre)

( – As the dust settles after its controversial Durban II racism conference, the United Nation’s Human Rights Council is now turning its attention to its upcoming annual election.
For the first time, the United States will take a seat on the Council, while some countries with dubious human rights records prepare for unopposed re-election.
With most regional slates finalized, and few offering any competition, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Cuba look set to begin additional three-year terms after the 192-member General Assembly votes on May 12.
In support of the U.S. candidacy, the State Department on Monday released a voluntary pledge outlining its commitment to human rights. China, Russia and Saudi Arabia have yet to do so, although Cuba has.
In its pledge, Cuba’s communist government reported “significant progress” in Cubans’ enjoyment of human rights, identifying as the most important achievement “the right to self-determination” in the face of “hostility, aggressions and blockade imposed by the superpower.”
This will be the fourth election since the Human Rights Council was established in 2006 as a “reformed” successor to the discredited U.N. Commission for Human Rights.
In the view of its many critics the council has during its early years shown few signs of improvement, and some – former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Zalmay Khalilzad notably among them – have described it as even worse than the 60-year-old commission it replaced.
Key criticisms include a disproportionate focus on Israel, the downplaying of some situations where violations are known and widespread, a campaign by Islamic states against “defamation of religion,” and the presence on the U.N.’s main human rights watchdog of countries which themselves have poor records.
The Obama administration has justified its decision to seek a seat – a reversal of its predecessor’s policy and in line with its “new era of engagement” – by saying it believes it can improve the council from the inside.
“Working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights,” Susan Rice, Khalilzad’s successor in New York, said in March. “We hope to work in partnership with many countries to achieve a more effective council.”
In order to make an actual difference, human rights advocacy groups say, the U.S. and fellow democracies will need as many of the council’s 47 seats as possible to be held by like-minded countries.
That goal is hindered by the fact that the resolution which created the council stipulates that the five regional groups recognized by the U.N. must be represented proportionately.
The resulting breakdown is 13 seats for states in Asia, 13 for Africa, eight for Latin America and the Caribbean, seven for the Western group and six for Eastern Europe.
Eighteen of the 47 seats are up for election on May 12. Most regional groups are putting forward the same number of candidates as there are seats available, meaning there will be no competition.
A contest looks likely in only one group, Eastern Europe, where incumbents Russia and Azerbaijan both intend to run again for two available seats, but Hungary has also thrown its hat into the ring.
Because of Hungary’s candidature, rights advocacy groups are hopeful that at least one seat will change hands for the better: Freedom House, which annually rates countries as “free,” “partly free” or “not free” based on political rights and civil liberties, ranks Hungary as “free” but both Russia and Azerbaijan as “not free.”
‘Highest standards’
The U.S. was one of only four countries to vote against the 2006 resolution setting up the council.
According to the resolution, candidates require only a simple majority (50 percent plus one, or 97 countries) of votes to be elected, while any attempt to have a member voted off is considerably more difficult, requiring a two-thirds majority vote.
The resolution states that council members “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”
Although other countries are meant to take that issue into account when voting to fill the council seats, the General Assembly, voting by secret ballot, handed victory to some countries with poor rights records in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
At the same time, the number of council members designated “free” by Freedom House has steadily dropped, from 25 in 2006, to 23 in 2007, to 22 in 2008.
The way the 2009 election is shaping up, the best possible scenario would see that number rise by only one, meaning “free” nations will remain in the minority.
A group of NGOs which support an effective Human Rights Council in a recent statement listed five countries, all running for re-election, which they said were not qualified.
“The human rights records of Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia …  fall far short of the required ‘highest’ standards of human rights,” the coalition said, urging other countries not to vote for them.
In the case of China, Saudi Arabia and Cuba, given that there is no competition in their respective regional groups, the only way their candidacies could fail would be if they are unable to obtain the votes of at least 97 countries. Other countries in Asia and Latin America would then have to join the race.
“Widespread, serious human rights abuses by China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia should carry a cost, even in the absence of competition,” said Paula Schriefer, director of advocacy at Freedom House.
Yap Swee-seng, executive director of Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, said the lack of choice in most regional groups suggested that many countries were putting politics and vote-trading ahead of human rights.
No contest
In the Western group, Canada, Switzerland and Germany will make way for the U.S., Norway and Belgium.
In Asia, Malaysia is not running again and the seat will go to Kyrgyzstan, while China, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and Jordan are standing again, unopposed, for the remaining four vacant seats.
In Latin America, Cuba, Mexico and Uruguay are seeking re-election to the three seats they currently hold.
Africa has yet to finalize its slate, but also plans to put forward five candidates for the five available seats. They are currently held by Cameroon, Djibouti, Mauritius, Nigeria and Senegal, all of whom are seeking re-election, while Kenya is also keen to run.
One development that will be closely watched is the proportion of seats held by countries belonging to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
The Islamic group, which often votes as a bloc – along with non-Muslim allies like China and Cuba – has been behind some of the more controversial moves in the council. Currently OIC members hold 16 seats, or one-third of the total. If Azerbaijan loses to Hungary, that number would drop to 15.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow