Record Number of Islamic Nations, Fewer ‘Free’ Countries, Coming to U.N. Human Rights Council

By Patrick Goodenough | May 6, 2010 | 4:32 AM EDT

In this photo released by the Saudi Press Agency, the head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, welcomes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010. The new U.S. envoy to the OIC, Rashad Hussain, stands behind Clinton’s left shoulder. (AP Photo/HO)

( – Next week’s election for new members of the U.N. Human Rights Council is expected to result in a greater share of seats going to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) than ever before, while the number of countries deemed “free” falls to a new low.
Barring any surprises, the Islamic bloc will emerge from the May 13 election in control of 18 of the total 47 seats, the highest number since the Geneva-based body was formed in 2006 as part of a broader initiative aimed at reforming the U.N.
Surprises are unlikely, since the five U.N. regional groups all have closed slates of candidates, meaning that with one week to go, there is no competition.
Not only will the OIC have more seats than ever before (the previous record was 16) but less than half of the council’s members will be “free” countries, as defined by the democracy watchdog Freedom House.
How many members the OIC has on the HRC is closely watched because the Islamic group has been the driving force behind two items on the council’s agenda that have most troubled human rights advocates and some Western governments – the campaign against religious “defamation” and repeated condemnations of Israel.
At the same time, its members -- invariably voting as a bloc and together with non-Islamic allies including China, Cuba, Russia and South Africa -- have closed ranks to support each other and other repressive governments in the face of criticism mostly by Western liberal democracies.
The Obama administration joined the HRC last year, saying that it recognized its flaws but that the U.S. would work with others to improve it from within. The Bush administration had shunned the council.
Like other U.N. bodies, HRC membership is broken down into five regional groups. Only seven of the 47 seats are held by members of the Western group, while Asian and African countries occupy 13 seats each. Latin America gets eight seats and Eastern Europe six.
Typical votes on divisive resolutions have seen a clear split between Western group on one side and most of Africa and Asia on the other.
Voting decisions of Latin American and Eastern European members have depended on the nature and agenda of the government concerned, with Mexico, Ukraine and Hungary for example siding with Western democracies, while Russia, Cuba and Nicaragua went the other way.
On May 13, the U.N. General Assembly in New York will fill 14 seats on the HRC. As the five regional groups have only put forward 14 countries to fill those seats, no contest is expected.
(There would have been a contest in the Asia group, but Iran’s recent decision to withdraw – evidently as part of a deal which gave it a seat instead on a top women’s rights body – deprived other member states of the opportunity to vote on its controversial candidacy.)
One of the key aims of the HRC was to improve the membership of the top U.N. rights body, and member states were urged to elect council members based on the “contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights.” But critics say that without competitive slates, this is impossible.
There is one way that a candidacy can fail, even without competition. If a candidate does not win a simple majority – at least 97 votes from the 192 U.N. member states – then a previously-undeclared candidate from the same regional group may put itself forward for election instead.
This is what two non-governmental organizations which closely monitor the HRC are hoping will happen next week – unless more suitable candidates put themselves forward for election ahead of the vote.
Freedom House and U.N. Watch are urging governments to reject five candidates in particular, arguing that Libya, Mauritania, Angola (all in the Africa group) and Malaysia and Qatar (Asia group) are “not qualified,” based on their human rights records at home and their previous voting records on rights-related resolutions.
That three of the candidates put forward by the African group for four African vacancies fell into that category was particularly disappointing, the two NGOs said. The fourth African candidate is Uganda.
“At a time when the ranks of African democracies are growing, it sends a terrible message to the world that a notorious human rights abuser such as Libya appears uncontested on the ballot,” said Freedom House deputy executive director Thomas Melia.
“Africa’s positive political trajectory over the past decade can be better represented than by the current list of candidates, which includes such distinctly non-democratic states such as Angola and Mauritania.”
Melia urged the U.S., the European Union “and the rest of the global community that respects human rights” to encourage better qualified countries in both the African and Asian groups to formally declare their candidacies before May 13.
‘Free’ vs. ‘not free’
U.N. Watch executive director Hillel Neuer appealed to General Assembly members “not to write in the name of Libya or other unqualified states when filling out the four African slots on their secret ballot. They should instead write in the names of African countries with far greater qualifications.”
Better candidates suggested by the two organizations included Cape Verde, Botswana, Mali and Tanzania in Africa, and Papua New Guinea and Micronesia in Asia.
If next Thursday’s vote passes with all 14 of the current candidates succeeding, then Libya and the other newcomers will join a council in which only 20 members (42.5 percent) are categorized as “free” in Freedom House’s annual rating of countries, based on scores for political freedoms and civil liberties.
The trend is downward – the current HRC membership includes 23 “free” countries, and in 2006 the council’s inaugural membership included 25 “free” countries.
At the other end of the Freedom House scale, the number of countries rated “not free” will rise, from eight on the current council, to nine on the new one. The nine will be Angola, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Libya, Mauritania, Qatar, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow