UN ‘Credibility’ at Stake Again, As Venezuela Vies for Human Rights Council Seat

By Patrick Goodenough | October 16, 2019 | 4:24am EDT
Nicolas Maduro addresses the Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2015. Venezuela was a member of the HRC in 2013-2015 and in 2016-2018, and is seeking another term in 2020-2022. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) – As the U.N. General Assembly prepares to fill 14 seats on the 47-member Human Rights Council on Thursday, human rights activists are hopeful that Venezuela’s Maduro regime will fail to secure one, thanks to an eleventh-hour candidacy by Costa Rica.

The small Central American democracy’s late entry injects competition into what would otherwise have been a farcical – but now routine – situation in a HRC “election,” with the same number of candidates running as there are seats available.

Two of the 14 seats up for grabs on Thursday are earmarked for Latin America and the Caribbean, and before Costa Rica’s entry there were just two candidates running for them – Brazil and Venezuela’s Maduro regime.

Such “closed slates” have become more common than not in HRC elections, and as a result the U.N.’s top human rights body each year has among its members regimes widely criticized for human rights abuses.

(For example, current members include China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia, all of whom have served multiple three-year terms on the council, which was established in 2006. Saudi Arabia was elected in 2006, 2009, 2014 and 2017; Cuba was elected in 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2017; China was elected in 2006, 2009, 2014 and 2017.)

“Due to serious violations against human rights evidenced by the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Venezuelan regime is not the suitable candidate for the U.N. Human Rights Council,” Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada tweeted early this month. “Costa Rica is proposed as an alternative.”

The report referred to by Alvarado highlighted abuses including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture of regime critics, and violations of the state’s “obligations to ensure the rights to food and health.”

Amid the continuing political and humanitarian crisis, the U.S. and more than 50 other nations no longer recognize Nicolás Maduro’s regime as Venezuela’s legitimate government.

Costa Rica’s challenge was praised by human rights advocacy groups such as U.N. Watch, which said it hoped the “late but welcome entry into the race in the Latin American group will see countries reject Venezuela’s absurd candidacy.”

“This is really good news,” said Eleanor Openshaw, New York director for International Service for Human Rights. “Costa Rica stepping forward is an important signal of the need to uphold standards and fight for the credibility of the U.N. We hope their candidacy will receive fulsome support from General Assembly members.”

Thursday’s voting process will also likely hand HRC seats to three or four other countries with poor human rights records.

The Africa group has also put up a “clean slate” – four candidates for four vacant seats – so Libya, Mauritania and Sudan are virtually guaranteed success (along with Benin, which unlike the other three is a democracy.)

Iraq is also a candidate, but as the Asia group has put up a competitive slate – five candidates for four available seats – its chances of success are less assured. Three of the other four candidates – Japan, Marshall Islands and South Korea – are widely regarded as stable democracies. The remaining candidate is Indonesia, which gets mixed reviews.

Like Venezuela under Maduro, Libya, Mauritania, Sudan and Iraq are all graded “not free” by Freedom House, which scores countries each year for political rights and civil liberties.

Terms at the Geneva-based HRC are staggered, with around one-third of the 47 members elected each fall for a three-year period beginning the following January. Other current “not free” members whose terms will extend into next year are Afghanistan, Angola, Bahrain, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Qatar, and Somalia.

That means that, if Venezuela and Iraq are successful on Thursday, next year’s HRC membership will include 13 “not free” countries, almost 28 percent of the total.

If Venezuela and Iraq are beaten in their respective groups, then next year’s HRC will include 11 “not free” members (23.4 percent).

‘Not holding my breath’

The Trump administration walked away from the HRC last year, citing as reasons the presence and conduct of abusive regimes in its ranks, and a disproportionate targeting of Israel.

In a Miami Herald op-ed this week Nikki Haley, who was serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time of the withdrawal, welcomed Costa Rica’s late entry into the race, but noted that “unless other countries support its bid, the HRC will continue to make a mockery of human rights.”

“I hope they do the right thing,” Haley wrote. “But I’m not holding my breath.”

Haley recalled how, as ambassador, she found that some democracies agreed with the U.S. in private on the need for reforms to the way the HRC operates, but “refused to take a stand in public.”

“It’s difficult to say which was worse: the tolerance we encountered for human-rights violators or the hypocrisy of the countries that should have known better.”

U.N. Watch is proposing a major change to the system of electing council members.

“If our own democracies continue to disregard the election criteria by voting for abusers,” said the group’s executive director Hillel Neuer, “then we should just scrap elections altogether, and make every country a member.”

In such a scenario, he said, countries that are not democracies “could no longer hold up their UNHRC election as a shield of international legitimacy to cover up the abuses of their regime.”

“Regrettably, the E.U. has not said a word about hypocritical candidacies that only undermine the credibility and effectiveness of the U.N. human rights system,” Neuer said. “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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