Human Rights Council Elections Set to Deliver Another Record-High Number of Rights-Abusing Members

Patrick Goodenough | October 9, 2018 | 4:20am EDT
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The General Assembly votes every year by secret ballot to send candidate countries to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council. More often than not there is minimal competition due to "closed slates." (UN Photo/Evan Schneider)

( – The U.N. holds annual “elections” for its Human Rights Council this week and, once again, none of the five regional groups are offering any competition for the vacant seats. Instead all five are putting up “closed slates” of candidates – a practice seen as one of the main reasons rights-abusing regimes are able to secure seats.

Indeed, the absence of competitive slates makes it possible to predict, three days before the U.N. General Assembly holds the exercise in New York, that next year the 47-member HRC will have 14 members – 29.7 percent – that are graded “not free” by the veteran democracy advocacy group, Freedom House.

That’s a record high for “not free” countries on the 13-year-old council, tied only with the 2018 membership.

Failing unexpected last minute developments, the 2019 HRC membership will comprise 23 “free” countries, 10 “partly free,” and 14 “not free.”

The presence on the U.N.’s top human rights body of regimes with poor human rights records was one of the main reasons cited by the Trump administration for its decision to withdraw over the summer, following what it said were unsuccessful attempts to reform it.

And such countries are able to secure seats, largely, because of closed slates – regional groups submitting the same number of candidates as there are vacant seats earmarked for those groups.

Of all the annual elections held for the HRC since it was established, only the inaugural one in May 2006 saw contests in all five regional groups. In 2009, 2010 and 2011, all five groups offered closed slates – as they are again this year.

“There is no fair or competitive election process,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said when he and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley announced the U.S. exit in June. “Countries have colluded with one another to undermine the current method of selecting members.”

The 14 “not free” HRC members this year are Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, China, Cuba, DRC, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Qatar, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela.

Burundi, Ethiopia, UAE and Venezuela end their terms at the end of 2018, but they will be effectively replaced by four new members graded “not free” – Bahrain, Cameroon, Eritrea and Somalia.

Like all of the 18 countries in line to fill the 18 vacant seats on Friday, the four will likely be ushered onto the council with no difficult since their regional groups, Africa and Asia, are offering no competition for the five vacant seats each has to fill.

Furthermore, of the 14 “not free” members next year, three will also be among Freedom House’s 11 very worst-scoring countries for political rights and civil liberties. They are newcomers Eritrea and Somalia, and incumbent Saudi Arabia.

‘Culture of impunity ‘

Ahead of Friday’s election, three human rights groups produced a report analyzing all 18 of the candidates, examining both their human rights records at home, and their voting records at the U.N.

UN Watch, Human Rights Foundation and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights concluded that six countries “fail to quality” with the criteria laid down in 2016 U.N. General Assembly resolution that created the HRC, which said council members should “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and “fully cooperate with the Council.”

(The resolution did not elaborate, and the criteria are not enforceable, which is why the HRC has had no fewer than eight, and as many as 14, “not free” members in any one year since its establishment.)

The six candidates identified as unsuitable were the four “not free” countries (Bahrain, Cameroon, Eritrea and Somalia), along with two countries which Freedom House ranks as “partly free” but the three rights groups said were unqualified (Bangladesh and the Philippines).

They did so on the basis of human rights violations at home, including poor rankings in the Reporters Without Frontiers press freedom index (the Philippines was ranked 133rd and Bangladesh 146th out of 180 countries). The two countries’ U.N. voting records were described as “negative,” and included opposition to resolutions supporting human rights victims in Iran, North Korea and Syria.

The report urged U.N. member states not to vote for the six “unqualified” countries.

Even in the absence of competitive slates, it said, countries are morally obliged not to vote for poor candidates.

Withholding votes could deprive a candidate of the simple majority it needs – 97 votes in the General Assembly – The three groups argued that in such a scenario, better-qualified candidates could then step forward on the day.

Despite such appeals in the past, some of the candidates with the most widely-criticized rights records have been elected to the HRC with large margins of support.

In 2016, for example, the 193-member General Assembly voting by secret ballot gave 180 votes to China, 173 to Egypt and 160 to Cuba, while the previous year, Ethiopia received 186 votes and Burundi 162.

Other “not free” countries to have been elected to the HRC with large vote counts in past years include: Russia (146), Saudi Arabia (154), Libya (155), Pakistan (151), Algeria (168), Tunisia (171), Mauritania (167), Bahrain (172), Qatar (177), Jordan (178), Angola (172), Cameroon (171), Gabon (178), Kyrgyzstan (174) and Congo (176).

“Regrettably, when the U.N. itself ends up electing human rights violators to the Human Rights Council, it indulges the very of culture of impunity it is supposed to combat,” said Irwin Cotler, a former Canadian justice minister who heads the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights.

“The world’s democracies must join in the preservation and protection of the council’s mandate, and not end up accomplices to its breach.”

UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer expressed regret that the European Union has not spoken out against unsuitable candidates.

“We need to hear the E.U.’s [foreign policy chief] Federica Mogherini and E.U. member states lead the call to oppose the worst abusers,” he said. “So far, they have been silent.”

“By turning a blind eye as human rights violators easily join and subvert the council, leading democracies will be complicit in the world body’s moral decline.”

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