Credibility Gap: Syria May Win Seat on U.N. Human Rights Council

By Patrick Goodenough | April 8, 2011 | 4:38 AM EDT

Syrian intelligence security forces patrol the restive southern city of Daraa on March 22, 2011. Human rights groups say more than 100 people have been killed in anti-government unrest since mid-March, and that Syria should not get a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

( – At a time when the Obama administration faces Republican calls to cut United Nations funding and withdraw from the Human Rights Council, a looming election reinforces one of the key criticisms of the council – the presence among its members of countries with poor human rights records.

When the U.N. General Assembly meets on May 20 to fill 15 vacant seats on the Geneva-based HRC, Syria will be among the countries standing for election.

So far, Syria’s success is all but assured, as it is one of four countries running for four seats set aside for the Asia group, one of the five regional groupings recognized at the U.N.

Unless another country in Asia decides to join the four declared candidates – Syria, Indonesia, India and the Philippines – in the coming weeks, there will be no contest and President Bashir Assad’s regime will join the 47-member council.

The HRC's ranks already include a number of countries that languish near the bottom of world rankings for civil rights and political freedoms, among them China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Cameroon, Russia, Mauritania, Kyrgzstan, Bahrain, Angola, Gabon, Jordan and Qatar.

The presence of such countries on the U.N.’s premier human rights watchdog, along with their tendency to support each other and vote as a bloc, was one of the main reasons cited by the Bush administration in shunning the HRC when it began operating in 2006.

U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice is congratulated after the U.S. won a seat on the Human Rights Council for the first time, in New York on May 12, 2009. (U.N. Photo by Eskinder Debebe)

President Obama reversed the policy in 2009, arguing that while the council was flawed, the U.S. could more effectively work to improve it from within. Citing progress in a number of areas, the State Department announced last week that it will stand for a second term when its current one expires next year.

So far, however, U.S. membership has done nothing to change the way HRC seats are filled, nor has it produced enforceable criteria for countries wishing to join.

Critics say the problem comes down to an inbuilt flaw – membership of the HRC, like other U.N. bodies, is carved up into the five regional groups.

At any one time, only seven of the 47 seats are held by members of the Western European and Others group (WEOG), which includes non-European Western democracies such as the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But 26 seats – a majority – are occupied by Asia and Africa (13 each). Latin America gets eight seats and Eastern Europe six.

The situation is compounded by the habit of regional groups putting up “closed slates” ahead of elections – the same number of candidates as there are seats up for grabs.

Despite appeals over the years from human rights advocates, a majority of U.N. member states continue to follow or tolerate the “closed slates” practice – and Western democracies are no better than countries in the developing world.

In next month’s election, Asia, Africa and WEOG are all putting up closed slates.

In fact, of the five annual elections held for the HRC since it was established, only the inaugural one in May 2006 saw contests in all five groups.

The last two elections, in 2010 and 2009, involved no competition at all – all five groups put up closed slates. In 2008 only three groups (WEOG, Eastern Europe and Asia) had contests, and in 2007 only two (WEOG and Eastern Europe) had contests.

The importance of allowing contests was vividly demonstrated in 2010, when Africa’s closed slate allowed Libya, Mauritania, Angola and Uganda to sail through without a hitch; and in 2009, when China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kyrgyzstan all won seats in an “election” that involved no competition in their respective groups.

On the other hand, the fact that there was a contest in the Asian group in 2008, combined with a strong campaign by human rights groups, denied Sri Lanka a seat that year.

As things stand, there are only three ways Syria will not join the council.

-- Another country or countries in Asia may join the four candidates that were endorsed by the Asia group last January. With sufficient lobbying by the U.S. and others, Syria may then lose to other Asian aspirants.

-- Countries opposed to Syria’s candidacy may be able to garner enough support to deny it the 97 votes it needs in the 192-member General Assembly. In such an event, another Asian country could enter the contest on the day. This has never happened before at an HRC election, however.

-- Assad may choose to withdraw the candidacy, given the unwelcome attention that Syrian membership will draw to the political unrest in the country, where more than 100 people have reportedly been killed in anti-government protests since mid-March. In a precedent, Iran withdrew its controversial HRC candidacy shortly before the 2010 election (although in compensation the Asia group approved Iran’s membership in another U.N. body, the Commission on the Status of Women.)

On Tuesday, a coalition of more than 30 human rights groups from around the world, including several in Syria and other Arab countries, sent a letter to the U.N.’s Asia group, pressing it to withdraw its backing for Syria’s candidacy.

“Given the significant deterioration in the human rights situation in Syria, we urge the Asia Group to reconsider its slate for the May 20 election,” the letter said. “In particular, we ask that you call upon Syria to withdraw its bid for a Human Rights Council seat. Should Syria refuse such a request, the Asia Group should rescind its endorsement of the existing slate, and make clear that other Asia Group states are welcome to put forward their candidacies for the HRC.”

In another initiative, 19 rights advocacy groups on Wednesday urged the HRC to hold an emergency session on the situation in Syria.

The council can only hold a “special session” if at least 16 of its members (one-third of the total) request it.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow