As China, Cuba, Saudis Line Up For UN Human Rights Council Seats, Democrats Want to Rejoin Too

By Patrick Goodenough | July 30, 2020 | 2:12am EDT
Then-Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2015. In contrast to the Bush and Trump administrations, the Obama administration embraced the HRC. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)
Then-Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2015. In contrast to the Bush and Trump administrations, the Obama administration embraced the HRC. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) – At a time when the Chinese Communist Party is eyeing another three-year term on the U.N. Human Rights Council, a pledge in the Democratic Party’s draft 2020 platform for the U.S. to return to a body plagued by the presence of rights-abusing regimes is drawing some criticism.

“The Democratic Party’s 2020 foreign policy platform calls to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council after the Trump administration rightly withdrew,” tweeted Nikki Haley, who as ambassador to the United Nations led the U.S. out of the HRC two years ago.

“Never mind that the corrupt body is filled with human rights abusers or that Cuba, Russia & Saudi Arabia are running for seats,” she said.

In an earlier tweet, Haley also drew attention to another reason given by the Trump administration for the decision to exit the Geneva-based council – a disproportionate focus on Israel.

“Which thing do the Dems like best, the extreme bias against Israel, the refusal to denounce China’s concentration camps, or the support for communist dictators in Cuba & Venezuela?” she asked.

Heritage Foundation scholar Nile Gardiner weighed in: “The UN Human Rights Council is a spectacular failure, and acts as a shield for some of the worst dictatorships in the world,” he tweeted, adding that returning to the council “would be a huge mistake.”

Established in 2006 to replace the badly discredited U.N. Commission for Human Rights, the HRC purports to be the U.N.’s top human rights watchdog. Systemic flaws were evident from the outset, and the Bush administration declined to stand for a seat in 2006, 2007 or 2008, initially attending sessions as an observer until eventually shunning it completely.

Rejecting its predecessor’s policy, the Obama administration joined the HRC, arguing that it could improve it best “from within.”

The Trump administration withdrew in mid-2018, after a further campaign to reform the council, this time led by Haley, was also unsuccessful.

The draft 2020 Democratic Party platform pledges to reverse that:

Unfortunately, President Trump has orchestrated an American retreat from global bodies that weakens our influence, cedes ground to our adversaries, and puts global peace and prosperity in jeopardy.

Instead of walking away, Democrats believe the United States should lead the way and mobilize our partners to work in common cause. We will rejoin and reform the WHO, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the United Nations Population Fund, because in a global public health crisis and a global democratic recession, American leadership is needed more than ever.

Reform?

Although the platform calls on a Democratic administration to “rejoin and reform” the HRC, there is little evidence that the Obama administration’s efforts to improve it were successful.

The presence and conduct of autocratic regimes at the HRC was one of the main reasons the Trump administration gave for withdrawing in 2018. (Getty Images)
The presence and conduct of autocratic regimes at the HRC was one of the main reasons the Trump administration gave for withdrawing in 2018. (Getty Images)

The council’s biggest flaws are inbuilt, the outcome of the 2006 U.N. resolution that established the HRC, and of an “institution-building” document adopted the following year. They include:

--The absence of any enforceable criteria for membership, which is open to all U.N. member-states and is secured by a simple majority vote in a secret ballot election by the U.N. General Assembly.

--The prevalence of “closed slates” – regional groups often put up the same number of candidates as there are seats available for that group, a situation which critics say makes the “election” a farce.

--The adherence to the U.N. custom of “equitable geographical distribution” – 13 seats are allocated to Asia, 13 to Africa, eight to Latin America, seven to the Western group, and six to Eastern Europe. This gives Asia and Africa together an automatic majority (26 seats out of 47), although the two regions also account for the largest proportion of autocracies.

--The systemic bias against Israel, which alone out of 193 U.N. member-states is targeted by a permanent agenda item.

During a five-year review process in 2011 the Obama administration pushed for criteria for membership, the prohibition of “closed slates,” and an end to the permanent Israel-focused agenda item. The effort failed.

Claims that the years of U.S. engagement with the HRC brought improvements to the quality of its membership do not withstand scrutiny.

And next year looks to be no different.

China is not the only authoritarian regime to be running for a seat in elections to be held in the fall. Other candidates include Russia, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

If all six are successful – and regional “closed slates” mean at least five of the six will almost certainly win seats – they will be ushered into a council next year whose existing members include Bahrain, Cameroon, Eritrea, Libya, Mauritania, Somalia, Sudan and Venezuela’s Maduro regime.

That means that at least 13 of the HRC’s 47 members – 27.3 percent – will likely be countries described as “authoritarian regimes” in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for 2019, and graded as “not free” by the Washington-based watchdog Freedom House, which scores countries annually based on political rights and civil liberties.

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