Libyan Membership Under Fire As U.N. Human Rights Council Gets Poor Grades

By Patrick Goodenough | September 16, 2010 | 5:18 AM EDT

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi holds up a copy of the U.N. Charter, which he had just torn, during his speech at the U.N. on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009. (AP Photo)

( – Four months after the world’s governments elected Libya to the U.N.’s top human rights body, victims of Libyan abuses joined human rights advocates Thursday in appealing for Muammar Gaddafi’s regime to be expelled.

Citing the Lockerbie bombing and various cases of political imprisonment and torture, campaigners say the U.N. should remove Libya from the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC).

Under the 2006 U.N. resolution that created the HRC, the General Assembly may vote to suspend any council member “that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.” A two-thirds vote is required.

As a three-week council session began on Monday, Libya took its seat for the first time since being elected in May.

The push to remove it comes amid a continuing effort by the Obama administration to justify its decision to join the 47-nation council last year, after its predecessor shunned it.

A report by the Washington-based democracy watchdog Freedom House Wednesday gave the HRC poor grades in several areas, noting in particular the malign influence of rights-violating countries on the council.

Over its four years of existence, the proportion of members deemed “free” by Freedom House has dropped, from 25 in 2006 to 20 this year.

Meanwhile the number of countries graded “not free” has risen, from nine in 2006 to 13 in 2010. Rounding out the numbers are countries rated “partly free.” (See graph: HRC-freedom house scores.doc)

“[T]he ratio of rights-respecting countries to rights-abusing countries has been slowly shifting in the wrong direction,” the report said. Freedom House has carried out the annual grading, which scores countries on political freedoms and civil liberties, since the 1970s.

Critics have attributed the problem to several factors, including:

-- No enforceable criteria for HRC membership; Although governments are expected to take a candidate’s human rights record into account when voting, this clearly has not happened in many cases. When Libya was elected in May, 155 countries voted in favor of its candidacy out of 188 votes cast in the secret ballot. Five countries abstained. By a process of elimination, that means that more than half of the 89 countries Freedom House ranks as “free” voted for Libya.

-- Regional group seat allocation; At any one time, more than half the total number of seats (26) are filled by countries from Asia and Africa, while only seven seats are held by members of the Western group. The rest are designated for countries in Eastern Europe (six seats) and Latin America (eight seats).

-- The failure of governments to ensure that the strongest possible candidates are elected; In the May 2010 election, not one of the five regional groups put forward a competitive slate. Instead, each group decided its representatives in advance – the same number of candidates as there were seats available.

The only way Libya could have lost its bid would have been a failed to get a simple majority of votes cast, which would have enabled another candidate from its region to step forward. In the event, its 155 “yea” votes easily exceeded the 97 threshold required.

Similarly, the other 12 current “not free” members of the HRC were all elected with little difficulty – Angola (170 “yea” votes), Bahrain (142), Cameroon (142), China (146), Cuba (163), Gabon (178), Jordan (178), Kyrgyzstan (174), Mauritania (167), Qatar (177), Russia (137) and Saudi Arabia (154).

‘Vacuum of leadership’

Because of these failings and in-built weaknesses, critics argue that no matter how well-intentioned, there is little democracies can do to change the way the council operates in a meaningful way.

U.S. ambassador the the Human Rights Council, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, addresses a press breakfast in Geneva on September 8, 2010. (Photo: U.S. Mission/Eric Bridiers)

U.S. ambassador to the HRC Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe disagrees.

“There are a lot of critics back home,” she told a press breakfast in Geneva last week. “Some are still arguing that the United States should not have joined the council in the first place, and that we should pack up and go home now.

“I personally disagree with this idea vociferously,” Donahoe continued. “I believe very deeply that if the United States is not at the table, there will be a vacuum of leadership that will get filled by the voices of others with whom we disagree. And I believe that if the United States wants to lead on human rights, we have to show up and fight for what we believe in.”

In its report, Freedom House did see value in U.S. membership, saying it had helped to improve the voting record of other democracies and to counter the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC)’s “religious defamation” campaign.

On the other hand, the U.S. had also co-sponsored with Egypt last October a resolution calling for freedom of expression to be upheld, but referring too to “negative racial and religious stereotyping.”

The Freedom House report called that language “vague,” and said it “could be misused to protect religions, religious beliefs, and religious symbols rather than the rights of individuals.”

Next year the HRC is due to hold a five-year review of its workings, and proponents of U.S. engagement are looking to the review to rectify some of the council’s evident flaws.

Human Rights Watch released a comprehensive report on the subject in June, calling on the council to use the review “to engage on all human rights situations that need its attention and to overcome selectivity in its work.”

An uphill battle looms, however. In an opening salvo Monday, Pakistan’s envoy told the HRC on behalf of the OIC that the Islamic bloc believes the review should “fine-tune” the council’s operations, not “reopen” a 2007 resolution on its workings, “which has a very delicate balance.”

Libyan victims speak out

Thursday’s Libya campaign in Geneva involves a coalition of 27 human rights groups from various countries, led by the Geneva-based U.N. Watch.

Libya’s presence on the council, U.N. Watch said on Wednesday, will allow it “to influence the definition of women’s rights, mandates on freedom of speech and religion, and an expected two resolutions on Israel.”

Backing the call to expel Libya was a representative of the Lockerbie Victims Association, Bob Monetti, whose 20-year-old son was among the 270 people murdered in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Also taking part was Mohamed Eljahmi, brother of Libya’s most prominent political prisoner. Fathi Eljahmi was imprisoned in 2002 and died in a Jordanian hospital in May 2009 after falling into a coma in Libyan custody.

Other participants include Dr. Ashraf el-Hajouj and Kristyana Valcheva, victims of one of the more bizarre cases of Libyan rights abuse – an allegation that a Palestinian doctor and five Bulgarian nurses had deliberately infected Libyan children with the HIV virus.

Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1999 and allegedly tortured while in custody, they were released in 2007 thanks to heavy lobbying by European governments.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow