Under Fire Over Killings, Syria Drops Bid for Seat on UN Human Rights Council

By Patrick Goodenough | May 11, 2011 | 5:25 AM EDT

(Update: Syrian U.N. envoy Bashar Jaafari announced Wednesday his country would not run for a seat on the Human Rights Council in elections next week. He denied Syria had “withdrawn its candidacy,” saying it had decided to “reschedule the timing of our candidacy, based on reconsidering our priorities.” Kuwait would run for the seat now, and Syria would do so in two years’ time, he said.)

(CNSNews.com) – Under pressure over Syria’s bid to join the United Nations’ premier human rights body -- even as its security forces kill unarmed protestors -- Arab governments are proposing that Kuwait run instead for the seat in elections to be held next week.

Damascus has yet to publicly indicate that it is withdrawing its candidacy for the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC), but Arab diplomats say it has been urged to do so, to avoid the risk of embarrassment if it loses the vote on May 20.

In January, Asian nations endorsed Syria and three others – India, Indonesia and the Philippines – for four HRC seats earmarked for that continent. At the U.N., such “closed slates” are commonplace, despite advocacy groups’ complaints that the absence of competition makes a mockery of the “election” process and allows unsuitable candidates to win seats.

Demonstrators rally against the Syrian regime's crackdown on protesters outside the Syrian embassy in Cairo, Egypt, on Tuesday, May 10, 2011. The writing in Arabic on t-shirts showing the Syrian flag reads, "The people want to topple the regime". (AP Photo/Mohammed Abu Zaid)

President Bashar Assad’s regime began cracking down on anti-government protests in mid-March, and the ensuing seven weeks have seen more than 600 people killed and thousands injured.

As the crisis has deepened, a public campaign to deny Syria a HRC seat, launched by a coalition of advocacy groups led by the Geneva-based U.N. Watch, expanded, along with behind-closed-doors lobbying by the U.S., France and other democracies.

Meanwhile Arab human rights groups added to the pressure on the Arab League, questioning the contrast in its approach to Libya and Syria and accusing it of “double standards and selectivity.”

Not only did current Arab members of the HRC demur, however, but when the council held an emergency session in late April to discuss the Syrian situation, none of the Arab members – Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Djibouti, Bahrain, Qatar and Jordan – supported a resolution condemning the violent clampdown.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) bloc also sought to water down the resolution, and in the end only four of the 18 OIC members on the HRC (Senegal, Burkina Faso, Kyrgyzstan and the Maldives) supported the measure.

Nonetheless, as the violence continued, the campaign to block Syria picked up steam, and on Tuesday, U.N. Watch hailed the news that Syria was about to drop its bid.

“The defeat of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s cynical candidacy is a welcome message to his brutalized population that the world is repulsed by the regime’s ongoing massacres,” said the organization’s executive director, Hillel Neuer.

“The Asian states at the U.N. never should have endorsed the brutal Syrian regime in the first place.”

Neuer expressed disappointment, however, about the choice of Kuwait as an alternative, calling the small Gulf emirate “far better than Syria, but another non-democracy nevertheless.”

Ranked “partly free” by democracy watchdog Freedom House, Kuwait is not an electoral democracy. “Principal human rights problems included limitations on citizens’ right to change their government,” the State Department said in its latest annual global report on human rights, released last month.

“There were reports of security forces abusing prisoners. Authorities limited freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and religion. The government limited freedom of movement for certain groups, including foreign workers and stateless Arab residents,” it said. “Women did not enjoy equal rights.”

U.N. Watch and others have been advocating for HRC membership to be reserved for countries with strong records of promoting and protecting human rights.

In the Asia group, countries designated “free” by Freedom House that are not currently members of the HRC (Japan and South Korea), or already running for seats this month (India, Indonesia) are Mongolia, Cyprus, and eight small Pacific island nations – Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday he could not confirm that Syria had withdrawn its bid, but reiterated that the U.S. opposed the nomination.

Islamic domination set to continue

Fifteen of the HRC’s 47 seats will be filled by a secret ballot U.N. General Assembly vote on May 20.

It is not clear that Syria would have been defeated if it had gone ahead with its bid.  A candidate needs only a simple majority – 97 votes – in the 192-member General Assembly to get a seat, and no country endorsed by its regional group and running on a closed slate has ever failed to achieve that since the HRC began operating in 2006.

On the contrary, some of the countries most often criticized for their human rights abuses have easily passed the threshold and joined the HRC in recent years. They include China (which received 167 votes), Russia (146), Cuba (163), Saudi Arabia (154) and Tunisia (171).

Libya was elected onto the HRC just one year ago with 155 votes out of 188 cast. The U.N. suspended its membership in March, after Muammar Gaddafi’s use of force against Libyan civilians.

Whether Syria or Kuwait takes the vacant seat on May 20, the OIC will still hold more than one-third of the seats (18) on the council.

The Islamic bloc’s size and influence on the HRC have help to drive an agenda harshly critical of Israel, and in favor of limiting free expression through the passage of resolutions against “religious defamation.”

Citing the presence and conduct of human rights violators on the HRC, U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) plans to introduce legislation calling for the U.S. to withhold funds and withdraw from the council, “until and unless structural reforms are implemented.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow