Governments Urged to Improve Quality of U.N. Human Rights Council

Patrick Goodenough | August 19, 2009 | 4:58am EDT
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U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice is congratulated by delegates at the U.N. headquarters in New York City after the U.S. wins a seat on the Human Rights Council for the first time on Tuesday, May 12, 2009. (U.N. Photo by Eskinder Debebe)

( – A month before the United States takes its place as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council for the first time, rights advocacy groups from around the world are urging governments to change practices that have allowed rights-abusing nations to join the body and tarnish its work.
The election of countries onto the U.N.’s main human rights watchdog has been characterized by a lack of competition, regional endorsements and vote-trading, said more than 70 nongovernmental organizations from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Western nations in a letter sent to U.N. member states.
Even as governments claimed to support human rights, they secretly traded votes with rights violators, said the NGOs.
“Vote trading effectively means that countries are elected based on their ability to provide a swing vote in other elections, rather than their rights records.”
The letter gave no examples, but those elected onto the 47-member Human Rights Council (HRC) in the four annual elections held since it was established in 2006 include countries whose human rights records frequently draw condemnation, among them China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Cuba.
Critics say one government will at times agree to support another one for a council seat, in return for reciprocal support in an election in another U.N. agency – or for a political or economic benefit of some sort.
Created as a replacement for the much criticized U.N. Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), the Geneva-based HRC has been accused of selectivity in the situations it has tackled, with Israel singled out for disproportionate attention.
HRC members have also sought to remove “special rapporteurs” investigating abuses in specific countries – except for Israel – and at one point succeeded in eliminating the mandates of rapporteurs for Belarus and Cuba.
And when individual members have come up for review, under a procedure that was hailed as one of the most meaningful reforms when the HRC was created, repressive regimes have routinely defended each other.
(Early this year, during China’s review, Iran praised Beijing’s “efforts to promote human rights” while Cuba encouraged China to enforce “strict compliance with law … to prevent people disguised as human rights activists from trying to destroy the state.” China in turn hailed Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women while Libya congratulated Cuba for promoting free expression.)
In their letter, the NGOs appealed to governments to commit publicly – possibly at the U.N. General Assembly session starting next month – that they will in future only vote for candidates that promote and protect human rights, basing their votes on “candidates' rights records, rather than political or economic considerations.”
They should also commit to promote competitive elections by encouraging more countries to compete than there are seats available. Past elections have seen “closed slates” – two countries standing for two available seats, for instance, depriving other countries of the opportunity to choose from among a group of candidates.
The NGOs said countries should present candidacies for membership individually rather than as part of a regional slate, and regional endorsement of slates should be avoided.
Inbuilt weaknesses
However, some of the problems raised by the rights groups are the direct result of procedures built into the U.N. resolution that established the HRC in 2006.
The key issues, according to close observers of the HRC, include the fact that election to a council seat requires only a simple majority of all U.N. member states’ votes, rather than a two-thirds supermajority. On the other hand, any attempt to have a member voted off is considerably more difficult, requiring a two-thirds vote.
Another perceived weakness in the resolution was the requirement for “equitable geographic distribution” of members. Western nations are restricted to seven seats (down from 10 in the slightly larger, now defunct UNCHR), or less than 15 percent of the total.
On the other hand, Asian and African groups together enjoy a locked-in majority – 26 of the council’s 47 seats (55 percent). While those regions include democracies, they also contain 40 of the 42 countries around the world deemed “not free” by the democracy watchdog Freedom House.
(Of the 26 African and Asian countries currently on the council, 15 are also members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a body that has driven both the council’s agenda on Israel and a controversial campaign against religious “defamation.”)
Arguably the biggest concern about the HRC resolution was the absence of binding criteria for membership. Instead the resolution relied on the expectation that members “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights,” without stipulating how that would be defined or measured.
These and other issues were debated as the draft resolution was hammered out in early 2006.
On the question of the majority required for entry, the U.S. and European states, supported by NGOs, called for a two-thirds requirement, in the hope this would make it easier to exclude egregious rights violators.
On membership criteria, the U.S. argued that any country liable to U.N. sanctions for rights abuses should be disqualified. The proposal was shot down.
In the end only four countries – the U.S., Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau – voted against the final resolution.
The Bush administration shunned the new council, attending sessions at an observer but choosing not to stand for election to the body in 2006, 2007 or 2008. Eventually it stopped attending meetings altogether, and symbolically withheld funding.
Early this year the Obama administration reversed the policy, first returning to the HRC as an observer and then standing for election in May, when it obtained the same number of votes as China, and just four more than Cuba.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said the administration believed that, “working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights.”
The council’s next session will be held from September 14 through October 2, with the U.S. participating as a member for the first time.
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