Many ‘Free’ Countries Voted for Libya to Join U.N. Human Rights Council

By Patrick Goodenough | May 14, 2010 | 4:39 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)

( – Despite appeals by numerous human rights advocacy groups for a clear rejection of Libya’s candidacy for the world body’s top human rights body, only 33 countries did so in a secret ballot election held on Thursday.
In the first election for Human Rights Council seats since the Obama administration brought the U.S. into the Geneva-based body a year ago, Muammar Gaddafi’s regime garnered 155 votes out of 188 cast, far more than the minimum 97 required. Five countries abstained.
The democracy watchdog Freedom House ranks 89 countries as “free,” based on scores for political freedoms and civil liberties. Even if all 38 countries that did not support Libya fell into that category, the result shows that more than half of the world’s “free” countries voted for Libya, despite the protection of anonymity assured by the secret ballot.
There was no competition for any of the 14 seats filled Thursday for three-year terms on the council. However, had any nominee failed to get a simple majority of votes cast, its bid would have failed, enabling another candidate from its regional group to step forward.
Libya was not the only concern ahead of the vote. A range of human rights groups had earlier urged governments to reject other countries with poor rights records – Angola, Mauritania, Uganda, Thailand, Malaysia and Qatar. All were elected by comfortable margins.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi prepares to address the United Nations in New York on September 23, 2009, 40 years after the coup that brought him to power. (AP Photo/The United Nations, Evan Schneider)

In total, Thursday’s election at the U.N. General Assembly in New York produced a Human Rights Commission with fewer “free” countries than ever – only 20 of the 47 members. In the previous four cycles since the HRC was established in 2006, it had between 22 and 25 “free” countries.
U.N. Watch, a non-governmental organization based in Geneva and a vocal critic of the HRC, led a coalition of almost 40 rights-related NGOs calling on U.N. members to defeat Libya’s bid.
“By electing serial human rights violators, the U.N. violated its own criteria, basic logic and morality,” the group’s executive director, Hillel Neuer, said after the vote.
“In the past year, Gaddafi declared from the U.N. podium that he rejects the principles of the U.N. Charter and called for a jihad against Switzerland,” ” Neuer said. “How can he now be elected a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council?”
In a later statement, U.N. Watch said, “If any good could possibly come out of today’s results, perhaps the mere fact of Gaddafi’s presence on the council will serve to expose the already existing hypocrisy and injustice which too often gets covered up by those who – out of career interests or political agenda – portray this kangaroo court as a serious body.”
Human Rights Watch, which urged the U.S. to join the council last year, was also critical of Thursday’s election, but focused more on the absence of competition – all five regional groups put forward the same number of countries as there were vacancies to fill.
“States serious about the role the council can play in promoting human rights should push for competitive slates in all regions, and should be willing to compete for a seat themselves,” said the group’s global advocacy director, Peggy Hicks.
‘Uphold highest standards’
The HRC was created to replace the 60 year-old U.N. Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), which had come under growing criticism over the presence and conduct of rights-violating nations.
One of the developments that pushed the commission’s credibility to the brink in its latter years was Libya’s nomination by the African group to chair its annual session in 2003. Appalled, the Bush administration broke with U.N. custom and pressed for a vote, which Libya easily won.

In this screenshot from a U.N. Webcast, U.N. officials stand behind ballot boxes used during the election of 14 members of the Human Rights Council, at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Thursday, May 13, 2010. (U.N. Webcast)

Apart from Libya, the UNCHR membership at the time included China, Sudan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Vietnam and Russia. One of the key aims of replacing it with a new body – as part of a broader U.N. reform drive – was to tighten criteria for membership.
The U.N. resolution which established the council stated therefore that members “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and requires all countries to consider candidates’ records in that regard when voting.
Although the U.S. supported the decision to replace the UNCHR it ended up voting against the resolution that set up the HRC in March 2006, arguing that it did not go far enough to ensure it would not repeat its discredited predecessor’s failings.
The Bush administration chose not to join the council, and was critical in particular of its repeated and disproportionate targeting of Israel. It symbolically withheld funding and eventually stopped participating in HRC sessions even in an observer capacity.
The Obama administration joined the council last year, with officials conceding that it was imperfect but arguing that the U.S. could most effectively work to improve it by being a member.
‘We have to work with them’
Speaking to reporters before Thursday’s results were announced, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said the U.S. regretted the fact that “a small number of countries whose human rights records is problematic” would likely be elected. She did not name them, saying doing so would not be “particularly constructive at this point.”
“It is the U.S. view that countries that run for and are elected to the Human Rights Council ought to be those whose records on human rights are strong and cannot be impugned,” she said. “And those that don’t meet that standard really don’t merit membership.”
“But in this body, as in other UN bodies, there will always be countries whose orientations and perspectives we don’t agree with, and yet we have to work with them. And that’s what we will do in this context as well.”
Rice again defended the decision to join the council, saying that while it remained “flawed” and “we have work going forward,” there had been some progress since the U.S. became a member. She cited developments including:
-- a U.S.-promoted HRC resolution last year on freedom of expression. The initiative, which Rice called “a milestone achievement,” was cautiously welcomed by free speech groups, though with some reservations.
-- waning support at the HRC for annual resolutions against religious “defamation.” This year’s vote passed, but with a slimmer victory margin than in previous years. Rice said the U.S. had “brought a larger number of countries to join the United States’ perspective on the problematic concept of defamation of religion.”
-- Iran’s recent decision to withdraw its HRC candidacy ahead of Thursday’s election. In return, Iran got the U.N. Asia group’s nod for a seat on a U.N. women’s rights body. Asked about this on Thursday, Rice called it “unfortunate” in the light of Iran’s record, but said that it had been “elected unopposed” onto the Commission on the Status of Women.  Iran was elected unopposed because neither the U.S. nor 12 other Western democracies on the voting body raised objections.
The new HRC membership, broken down into Freedom House rankings, is as follows:
“Free” (20)
Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, France, Ghana, Hungary, Japan, Mauritius, Mexico, Norway, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Slovakia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay
“Not free” (13)
Angola, Bahrain, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Gabon, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Mauritania, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia
“Partly free” (14)
Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Ecuador, Guatemala, Malaysia, Maldives, Moldova, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, Uganda, Thailand, Zambia
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow