Human Rights Abusers Eye Seats on U.N. Human Rights Council

By Patrick Goodenough | July 10, 2013 | 4:35am EDT

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in September 2012. (UN Photo by Jean-Marc Ferre)

( – The composition of the United Nations’ top human rights body looks set to change significantly in 2014 as a group of countries with poor human rights records seek a comeback after a year’s absence enforced by term limits.

Among those planning to return to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC) are China, Russia, Cuba and Saudi Arabia – governments whose conduct on the council in past years drew consistent criticism from human rights advocates.

The four were obliged to leave the 47-member HRC last year, having served the maximum of two consecutive three-year terms.

But U.N. regulations require an absence of just 12 months before a country can return, and all four have indicated their intention to do so when the U.N. General Assembly meets in November to fill 14 HRC seats for the 2014-2017 period.

Their return will pose new challenges for democracies, including the United States which, in a policy reversal, joined the HRC in 2009, with the Obama administration expressing optimism that it could improve it from within.

The makeup of the council is significant because the fewer democracies it includes the greater the likelihood it will focus on initiatives opposed by the U.S., like the Cuba-promoted “right to peace” and the Islamic bloc’s “religious defamation” drive.

Member-states with widely-criticized human rights records have also typically closed ranks to defend each other and block Western censure, while focusing what the U.S. views as disproportionate attention on Israel.

China, Russia, Cuba and Saudi Arabia are all designated “not free” by Freedom House, a Washington-based watchdog whose annual rankings are derived from grades for political rights and civil liberties.

According to U.N. Watch, a non-governmental organization based in Geneva, other countries that have signaled HRC candidacies ahead of the November election include another five that are designated “not free” by Freedom House – Algeria, Chad and South Sudan in the Africa group, and Jordan and Vietnam in the Asia group.

In the absence of a concerted lobbying effort by democracies to encourage more democracies from the various regional groups to step in, at least seven of the nine look likely to win seats. That would take the total number of “not free” members in the HRC next year to 13.

And if all nine of the “not free” candidates succeed, the HRC will include 15 “not free” members in 2014 – the most since it was established in 2006.

UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer called the candidacies “a recipe for disaster.”

“Candidates like Algeria, China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia have one thing in common: they systematically violate the human rights of their own citizens and they have consistently voted the wrong way on U.N. initiatives to protect the human rights of others,” he said.

Neuer said U.N. Watch is working with NGOs from China, Cuba and Russia in a bid to oppose their candidacies.

The International Federation for Human Rights recently called for Vietnam’s candidacy to be defeated.

(U.N. Watch also noted that there has also been talk of Iran and Syria running for council seats in November, although that has not been confirmed.

Iran was in the running for the HRC in 2010 but withdrew under pressure. The Asia group in compensation approved Iran’s controversial membership in another U.N. rights body, the Commission on the Status of Women.

Syria, too, withdrew an earlier candidacy, which had run into Arab opposition as the conflict there worsened in 2011. At the time the Assad regime said it would run for a seat for the 2014-2017 period instead, although that looks highly unlikely now.)

When U.N. member states in 2005-6 discussed the formation of a new rights body to replace the largely-discredited U.N. Commission for Human Rights, criteria for membership was one of the issues that divided negotiators.

The Bush administration argued at the time that HRC membership should be closed to any country that was subjected to U.N. Security Council sanctions for human rights abuses or terrorism. It also proposed that election to the council require a two-thirds majority vote of the General Assembly.

Neither proposals survived the negotiations.

Instead, a seat is won by a simple majority vote – 97 of the General Assembly’s 193 members, rather than 129 members (a two-thirds majority) as proposed by the U.S. and others.

Any U.N. member state may run for a seat; governments are requested to take into account a candidate’s human rights record, but voting takes place by secret ballot and human rights-abusing regimes have repeatedly been voted onto the council, often by large majorities.

MRC Store