In a First-Ever Rebuke of its Kind, Russia Loses Bid for UN Human Rights Council Seat

Patrick Goodenough | October 28, 2016 | 2:49pm EDT
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The U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. (UN Photo, File)

( – In a rare victory for human rights advocacy groups long frustrated by the workings of the U.N. primary  human rights body, Russia on Friday lost a bid to join the Human Rights Council.

In a vote in New York, the 193-member U.N. General Assembly elected 14 members to the Geneva-based HRC for new three-year terms, but Russia was not one of them.

A group of human rights groups had earlier urged U.N. member states to deny Russia a seat on the 47-member council, citing military actions in Syria which some advocates believe amount to war crimes.

Over the period since the HRC was established a decade ago, Russia has never not held a seat, with the exception of 2013, when it was obliged to stand down for a year after serving two consecutive terms. It was back a year later.

In the end, Russia only failed in its latest bid because, unusually for the HRC, its Eastern Europe geographical group put up a competitive slate – three candidates for two seats reserved for the region.

Russia, which is ranked “not free” by the democracy watchdog Freedom House, obtained 1112 votes, narrowly lost in a three-way race with two “free” countries – Hungary, which received 144 votes, and Croatia, which received 114.

Far more common in HRC elections are “closed slates” – the same number of candidates as there are openings, prompting critics to call the process a farce.

Indeed, closed slates submitted by the Asia and African groups allowed several countries ranked “not free” by Freedom House to win seats on Friday – China, Saudi Arabia and Iraq in the former group, and Egypt and Rwanda in the latter.

The only other group to offer a competitive slate on Friday was Latin American & Caribbean states, although the loser in a three-way contest there was not Cuba (“not free”), but Guatemala (“partly free”.)

The results of Friday’s election mean that the HRC next year will have 11 “not free” countries in total – Burundi, China, Congo, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Qatar, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

Also noteworthy in the election was the large number of votes received by repressive autocracies – 180 votes for China, 173 for Egypt and 160 for Cuba. Although voting records are not known because the election is by secret ballot, those results mean that a majority of the free democracies in Europe believe countries like China deserve a seat on the HRC.

U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based NGO that led a campaign to deny Russia a seat, was pleased at the outcome.

“The non-election of Russia shows that the nations of the world can reject gross abusers if they so choose,” said executive director Hillel Neuer. “This makes the election of Saudi Arabia, China and Cuba even more preposterous.”

“The re-election of China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia – regimes which systematically violate the human rights of their citizens – casts a shadow upon the reputation of the United Nations,” he said.

Also welcoming Russia’s failure to secure a seat, Human Rights Watch U.N. director Louis Charbonneau said that “next year, U.N. member states should make sure that all regional groups have real competition so no one is guaranteed victory.”

The United States also won a seat on the council for the next three years, having taken a mandatory one-year break in 2016. The U.S. and Britain were uncontested candidates in a “closed slate” put forward by the Western group, receiving 175 and 173 votes respectively.

HRC seats become vacant in batches of one-third, so 14 seats were filled on Friday.

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