No Threat Seen to Libya’s Seat on Top U.N. Human Rights Body

By Patrick Goodenough | February 24, 2011 | 4:16 AM EST

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi pays his first visit to the United Nations headquarters in New York on Sept. 22, 2009.

( – Libya’s seat on the U.N.’s top human rights body looks secure for now, as a Western-led initiative to condemn it for its violent response to anti-government protests stops short of calling for its expulsion.

The Geneva-based Human Rights Council will hold an emergency meeting on Libya on Friday, following a request by 21 of the council’s 47 members – more than the 16 required – for a so-called “special session.”

The request followed appeals by scores of human rights groups earlier this week, amid turmoil sparked by protests against Muammar Gaddafi’s 41-year rule, harshly suppressed at the cost of hundreds of Libyan lives.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in Rome Wednesday credible reports put the estimated death toll at around 1,000.

Although it will be the first time in the HRC’s five-year history that a special session focuses on a sitting member, signs quickly emerged that it would fall short of the expectations of advocacy groups concerned about the killings.

A European Union-proposed draft resolution for Friday’s session “strongly condemns” human rights violations committed in Libya, rather than condemning Gaddafi or the regime for committing them.

It also does not call on the U.N. General Assembly to expel Libya from the HRC.

In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, people attend a protest in the eastern Libyan town of Derna on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Nasser Nouri)

The council’s founding resolution allows this step to be taken against a member “that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights,” if supported by two-thirds of the countries present and voting in the 192-member General Assembly.

The diplomatic wording of the draft resolution appeared designed to ensure the widest possible support in a body well-known for deep divisions between Islamic states and their allies – which dominate the HRC – and mostly Western democracies.

As such, the strategy appeared to have had some success, in that four of the 18 Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) members on the council – Qatar, Jordan, Senegal and the Maldives – broke with the bloc and were among the 21 signatories to the request for a special session.

Nonetheless the draft resolution, even in its present form, will not necessarily pass at Friday’s meeting. Fewer than half of the HRC’s members put their names to the request for the session, and members like China, Russia, Cuba, Angola, Ecuador, Thailand and Zambia invariably vote with the Islamic bloc.

U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based rights group that spearheaded the earlier appeal by 70 organizations calling for the HRC to act, voiced disappointment that the text did not call for Libya’s removal, or condemn Gaddafi directly.

“The moral outrage of Libya’s membership on the world’s top human rights body must end immediately,” said executive director Hillel Neuer, urging the international community to “not stay silent on this pernicious moral hypocrisy.”

He also criticized the E.U. for drafting a text that “studiously avoids naming the Libyan government or its leader as the perpetrators of the ongoing atrocities.”


A U.S.-based Libyan activist on Thursday criticized the U.N.  response to the situation.

“Am I satisfied with the United Nations handling of the crisis? No, words alone are meaningless unless they are backed with concrete action,” American Libyan Freedom Alliance (ALFA) chairman Mohamed Bugaighis told

While he welcomed a HRC special session, Bugaighis said it must conclude with concrete action – “condemnation of the Gaddafi regime and its expulsion from the council, particularly when Gaddafi says there is no such thing as human rights.”

“Gaddafi is a maniac who run the country as a Mafia enterprise,” he added. “His presence at the U.N. demeans the organization.”

Before Libya erupted ALFA early last week wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warning of the likelihood of violence and urging her to “issue an immediate, explicit warning to Gaddafi to refrain of committing any acts of violence against peaceful demonstrations.”

Bugaighis said Thursday he had received no response from the State Department – “they rarely do, and when they do, it is always late.”

Asked his opinion of statements coming from the department, he said, “words alone do not solve problems, actions do. I have not seen any action to address the crisis situation in Libya.”

The type of steps he would like to see included a no-fly zone “to prevent Gaddafi from importing African mercenaries to kill protestors.”

“Gaddafi had been receiving military supplies from Algeria’s dictator, using large Russian cargo planes,” Bugaighis said. “The no-fly zone would put a stop to the import of mercenaries and military supplies.”

Rights violations no bar to membership

When Libya was elected onto the HRC last May, it became the latest in a string of countries widely viewed as having poor human rights records to join the body.

The U.N. resolution that set up the council in 2006 stated that members “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and required all countries to consider candidates’ records in that regard when voting.

Despite this, the General Assembly – voting by secret ballot – has during the past five annual elections handed council seats to at least 18 countries designated “not free” by Freedom House, in some cases more than once.

Furthermore, in most cases the candidates concerned have been voted in by large majorities, well over the minimum 97 votes required.

The 18 countries are listed below. The number in brackets is the number of votes each one garnered in the election. Two numbers appear where a country has been elected more than once:

China (146, 167), Russia (137, 146), Cuba (135, 163), Saudi Arabia (126, 154), Libya (155), Egypt (168), Pakistan (149, 114), Algeria (168), Tunisia (171), Mauritania (167), Bahrain (172), Qatar (170, 177), Jordan (178), Angola (172, 170), Cameroon (171, 142), Gabon (178), Kyrgyzstan (174) and Azerbaijan (103).

The HRC was established to replace the 60 year-old U.N. Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), which had been become widely discredited.

A low point for critics saw Libya nominated in 2003 as UNCHR president. For the first time in the commission’s history, the nomination was put to a vote after the Bush administration objected strongly.

Libya won by a 33-3 vote in the 53-country commission, with 17 members abstaining.

Libyan diplomat Ali Triki – who went on to serve as president of the U.N. General Assembly in 2009-10 – said that vote underscored Libya’s “real freedom and democracy” and “thwarted all lies, fabrications and allegations circulated by hostile circles.”

“This is not a defeat for the United States, this is a defeat for the Human Rights Commission,” was the response of then U.S. ambassador Kevin Moley.

Three years later the commission was shut down. One of the main aims of replacing it with the HRC was to tighten the criteria for membership.
The Bush administration steered clear of the council, eventually describing it as worse than its predecessor. However, the Obama administration joined the HRC in 2009, conceding that it was flawed but saying the U.S. could most effectively push it to improve by being a member.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow