Saudi Arabia, Cuba, People's Republic of China Will Join UN 'Human Rights' Council

By Patrick Goodenough | November 12, 2013 | 4:40am EST

Voting at the United Nations (U.N. Photo by Evan Schneider)

(Update: China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Cuba, Vietnam and Algeria were among 14 countries elected onto the Human Rights Council on Tuesday. From January 1 next year 11 of the council's 47 members will be countries designated "not free" by Freedom House.)

( – By the end of Tuesday, a handful of countries notorious for blocking human rights promotion at home and abroad will have rejoined the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Due to an absence of competition, Tuesday’s vote at the General Assembly in New York will see China, Russia and Saudi Arabia all return to the council in January, just one year after term limits obliged them to stand down. They will be joined by Vietnam, which will take a seat for the first time since the Geneva-based HRC was established in 2006.

The State Department's latest report on human rights in China describes it as "an authoritarian state in which the Chinese Communist Party constitutionally is the paramount authority." The report also cited China for its coercive one-child-per couple policy which sometimes resulted in "forced abortion" or "forced sterilization."

Saudi Arabia, according to the State Department human rights report, only issues drivers licenses to men, effectively prohibiting women from driving.  The country also requires women to have permission of their "male guardian" to move around the country.

The State Department also says that in Saudi Arabia "conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, which can be punishable by death." Non-Muslim clergy are not allowed to enter the country to perform services, according to the State Department's report on religious freedom, "which is particularly problematic for Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, whose religious traditions require that they receive sacraments from a priest on a regular basis."

China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Vietnam are all designated “not free” by the democracy watchdog Freedom House, which grades countries for political rights and civil liberties.

In addition, between one and three more “not free” countries will receive the go-ahead to join the council, depending on how the votes go for the only competitive slates on offer – Africa and Latin America. The three are Cuba, Algeria and South Sudan.

Along with five current “not free” countries whose terms extend into next year – Congo, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kazakhstan, United Arab Emirates – that means the 47-seat HRC will from January 2014 have between 10 and 12 “not free” members in total.

That will leave a group of between nine and 11 “partly free” members and between 23 and 25 “free” members. So the caucus of “free” democracies will comprise between 49 and 53 percent of the council next year.

The top end of that range would actually be a slight improvement on recent years, from the point of view of the democratic members. But beyond the math, some of those seeking to return have in past years been particularly influential in directing the agenda and consolidating support around controversial positions.

China and Russia naturally wield leadership in multilateral forums while Cuba, a key player in the bloc of developing nations known as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), drew Western criticism during earlier terms on the council. The Castro regime faces a three-way race Tuesday with Uruguay and Mexico for two available Latin American seats.

Efforts led by Western democracies and rights advocacy groups to urge the U.N. membership to use the secret ballot vote to elect as HRC members only countries that respect human rights have failed over the years.

NAM comprises just under two-thirds of the total General Assembly membership, and some of the world’s most repressive regimes have been elected in past years with large majorities.

Elections have also been marked by horse-trading and the problem of closed-slates – where the U.N.’s regional groups nominate the same number of countries as there are seats available for their group, thereby doing away with any contest.

It is because of closed slates in the Asia and Eastern Europe groups that China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Russia are all but guaranteed success on Tuesday.

(The Asia group did provide some competition until recently, when Jordan dropped out, thus assuring Saudi Arabia of victory. The U.N. has yet to confirm reports that the two Arab states agreed to a tradeoff: in exchange for withdrawing from the HRC contest Jordan will reportedly take the Security Council seat which Saudi Arabia won, and then promptly declined, last month.)

When the HRC in 2011 held its first five-year review – an opportunity to assess and fine-tune its operations – the United States proposed that “closed slates” be disallowed. It also suggested that every country wishing to stand for election should first be required to defend its human rights record through an “interactive dialogue” with U.N. member states and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Both recommendations failed.

Despite this and other voiced concerns – mostly relating to a disproportionate focus on Israel – the Obama administration, an enthusiastic participant in the HRC, says U.S. leadership has improved it. At the end of most council sessions the State Department issues a fact sheet highlighting what it sees as positive developments.

Cuba champions ‘just, democratic and equitable international order’

In all, 16 countries are running Tuesday for 14 available seats on the HRC, for three-year terms starting January.

Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based NGO, noted that five of them – China, Russia, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam – have all refused permission in recent years for U.N. rights experts to visit their countries.

After reviewing the rights practices and voting records of the 16 candidates two other NGOs, U.N. Watch and Human Rights Foundation, concluded that no fewer than 12 “fail to meet the U.N.’s own basic criteria for membership.”

Six of them (Algeria, China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam) were not qualified, while another six (Maldives, Morocco, Namibia, South Africa, South Sudan and Uruguay) were “questionable,” the NGOs said in a report. In Uruguay’s case, they said, although the country is a “free” democracy its president is “an open admirer and apologist of the Cuban dictatorial government” and it has voted with Cuba in the HRC in past years.

U.N. Watch and Human Rights Foundation said Cuba’s attempted return was especially significant “because it has been a key leader of the council’s anti-democratic faction, initiating more counter-productive resolutions than any other country.”

They reminded countries that even in closed-slate U.N. elections, an unsuitable candidate can be denied a seat if enough countries withhold their vote. If a candidate fails to receive 97 votes – a simple majority in the 192-member General Assembly – in three successive ballots, then any other country from the relevant regional group can step in and provide an alternative.

Announcing its candidacy for this year’s election, Cuba said it “remains committed to promoting consideration of the just historical demands of the peoples of the South and of the large majority worldwide on issues such as the right to food; effective realization of the right to development; combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

It was also committed to “promoting the right to peace; cultural rights, including respect for cultural diversity; and the right to international solidarity and to a just, democratic and equitable international order.”

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