UN Rights Forum Includes 'Some of the World's Worst Abusers'

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - A majority of the world's governments decided Tuesday that China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Russia should be among the group of countries making up the United Nations' primary forum for human rights.

Despite pledges to "take into consideration candidates' contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights," well over 100 countries supported a handful of regimes that rights campaigners say are among the world's worst.

Of the 47 members of the U.N.'s Human Rights Council, elected by the General Assembly in a secret ballot, nine are countries that the democracy watchdog Freedom House designates "not free."

They are China (which obtained 146 votes), Cuba (135), Saudi Arabia (126), Russia (137), Pakistan (149), Tunisia (171), Algeria (168), Cameroon (171) and Azerbaijan (elected in a second-round restricted ballot).

Another 13 are "partly free" according to Freedom House, which bases its assessment on scores for political rights and civil liberties. They are Bahrain, Bangladesh, Jordan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Gabon, Morocco, Nigeria, Zambia, Ecuador and Guatemala.

The remaining 25 successful candidates, all designated "free" by Freedom House, were Britain, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Ghana, Mali, Mauritius, Senegal, South Africa, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and Ukraine.

In a result that will be welcomed in Washington and European capitals, Iran not only failed in its bid for a council seat, but also achieved one of the lowest scores in its regional group.

The HRC was designed to replace the 60-year-old U.N. Commission on Human Rights, whose critics says was increasingly discredited by the presence and voting patterns of rights-violating nations.

The U.S., which frequently clashed with countries like Cuba and China at the commission's annual session in Geneva, voted against the resolution setting up the council, arguing that it did not go far enough to prevent recurrence of the problems that plagued its predecessor.

The U.S. also decided not to stand for election to the council in this first election, although administration officials pledged to support the body.

Optimism, concern

The new council will have an eight percent smaller contingent of countries that are not regarded as fully democratic than the defunct commission had in its last year (a drop from 54.7 percent to 46.8 percent.)

Reaction to the election ranged from cautious optimism to scorn.

"The governments that have a history of trying to undermine the protection of human rights through their membership on the old commission are now a significantly reduced minority," Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch was quoted as saying. "That doesn't guarantee that the council will be a success, but it is a step in the right direction."

"The face of U.N. 'reform," commented Anne Bayefsky, editor of the Hudson Institute's Eye on the U.N. project, saying that "some of the world's worst human rights abusers" had been elected onto the body.

Bayefsky noted that under the regional distribution formula used for the HRC, Asian and African countries together account for 26 (55 percent) of the seats.

"The election hands the balance of power in the new council to states which are not full democracies."

Seventeen of the 26 Asian and African seats are now taken by countries that do not meet the characteristics required to be ranked "free" by Freedom House.

U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based non-governmental organization (NGO), said it was encouraged that Sudan and Zimbabwe had chosen not to run, and that Iran and Venezuela had failed in their bids.

"At the same time, the electoral victory of notorious human rights violators such as Cuba, China, and Saudi Arabia, suggests that the spirit of the discredited and now-defunct commission may come back to haunt us when the new council opens next month," said executive director Hillel Neuer.

China's election drew comment from groups focusing on Beijing's human rights record.

"This is the time for China to move beyond rhetoric and demonstrate a genuine commitment to respect and promote human rights," said Sharon Hom, executive director of the NGO Human Rights in China.

"It can begin at home by respecting freedom of expression and promoting diverse and independent civil society voices, and instituting specific mechanisms to monitor the implementation of international human rights obligations."

Hom said if China and other council members failed to take part transparently and comprehensively in a periodic universal review process required by the HRC resolution, they would merely be "pouring old wine into new bottles."

The International Campaign for Tibet earlier called on member states to reject China's bid, and said it was disappointed "that so many member states have turned a blind eye to China's human rights violations in Tibet."

"But China's election onto the council also comes with obligations and ICT will continue to ensure that China does not get a free ride at the U.N.," said the group's Tsering Jampa.

"We are already looking ahead to the universal review that China must undergo as a council member."

Following Tuesday's vote, names were randomly drawn from the 47 candidates to establish which of the elected countries would serve on the HRC for the full three-year term, which would serve for two years, and which for just one year.

This was in line with an earlier decision that the membership of this new body would be staggered, in order to allow elections each year for one-third of the full membership.

Among the countries that will serve for the full three-year period are several undemocratic states, including China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Azerbaijan and Cuba.

Countries that garnered the highest number of votes in each regional group were India, Russia, Germany, Brazil, and Ghana.

For India, Brazil and Germany, those results will be especially gratifying, as the three hope to become permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

See earlier story:
UN's Ability to Overhaul its Human Rights Role Questioned (Feb. 8, 2006)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow