Under the spotlight at the 2014 Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy were the human rights records of a number of countries that will take their seats for the month-long HRC session, including China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Pakistan and Venezuela.
The presence of abusive regimes in the 47-member council has long frustrated democratic governments and human rights advocates, since they use their positions to block scrutiny of their own records while defending each other.
But since U.N. rules do not disqualify them from running, they often have no competition as regional groups put forward “closed slates” of candidates, and they typically win large majorities in secret ballot elections at the U.N. General Assembly.
China has been a member of the HRC ever since it was established in 2006, with the exception of last year when term limits obliged it to step down for 12 months. Late last year it was voted back onto the council for the next three years, obtaining 176 votes out of a possible 193.
“Take out your calculators,” said U.N. Watch executive director Hillel Neuer, who chaired the summit. “That means only 17 countries in the world did not vote for communist China.”
“If you assume that perhaps America, Canada, Australia were among those 17 you’re left with maybe 14, let’s say, European countries,” he continued.
Noting that the European Union has 28 members, Neuer said that meant at least 14 E.U. countries had voted for China to be a member of the U.N.’s primary human rights watchdog.
“This is disgraceful, and the E.U. needs to be held to account.”
Neuer said there will be no resolution introduced on China’s human rights record during the upcoming HRC session – “no-one’s even attempting one.”
He recalled that when he asked a council diplomat whether a resolution on China would be introduced, “he literally started to laugh.”
Speakers at the Geneva Summit included China’s Chen Guangcheng, the self-taught lawyer and activist who was imprisoned and harassed for years after exposing hundreds of cases of forced sterilization and abortion by local officials enforcing Beijing’s controversial “one-child” policy.
Chen, who is blind, was able to leave China for the U.S. in 2012 after fleeing house arrest and taking shelter at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
“People who live in democracy and freedom don’t realize how important they are to them, but people who are oppressed understand that democracy and freedom are very important,” said Chen, who was honored with the summit’s annual “Courage” award.
Another speaker who drew attention to China’s record was Tenzin Dhardon Sharling, a Tibetan activist and a member of Tibet’s India-based parliament-in-exile.
“We must make sure China remains accountable for its actions,” Sharling told the event, noting that Beijing sits “proudly” on both the HRC and U.N. Security Council.
The summit heard from activists and victims of rights abuses who spoke on the situations in other HRC members – Russia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Pakistan and Venezuela.
Situations in countries that are not currently members of the HRC also featured. They included Iran, Syria, Egypt, Mauritania and Cambodia.
“Freedom of religion, including the right to change one’s religion, is a God-given right of all people, including the Iranian people,” she said. “No human law should infringe upon that right.”
Naghmeh Abedini said her husband was behind bars for one reason only – “because he chose to put his faith and trust in Jesus Christ as savior.”
“Saeed is just one of many faces persecuted in Iran, our family is one of many suffering families,” she said.
“It’s been painful talking to families of other prisoners inside Iran, talking to their kids who don’t understand when they visit their father why they have to be torn away, why he’s behind prison walls because he believes differently.”