(CNSNews.com) – The United States is expected to return to the U.N. Human Rights Council in this new year, rejoining a body almost a quarter of whose members are autocracies with poor human rights records.
When the HRC holds its first session of 2017 next month – the 34th since its establishment in 2006 – 11 of its 47 members (23.4 percent) will be countries whose records on political rights and civil liberties have earned them a “not free” annual grading from Freedom House, the veteran Washington-based rights watchdog.
Another 15 members (31.9 percent) of the U.N.’s top human rights apparatus have records that earned them a “partly free” rating from Freedom House.
That leaves just 21 members determined by Freedom House to be “free.” Those democracies – about half in the West and the rest scattered across Latin America, Africa and Asia – comprise just 44.6 percent of the total membership, the third-smallest proportion of free democracies of any year in the council’s history.
At no time in that 11-year history has the council boasted more than 25 “free” members (53 percent), and at its worst, it had just 18 (38 percent).
The number of “not free” members has ranged from a high of 13 (27.6 percent) in 2010 to a low of eight (17 percent) in 2009.
For eight years the Obama administration engaged enthusiastically with the HRC, arguing that U.S. participation would do more to improve the Geneva-based council than the Bush administration’s policy of shunning it.
As the administration has done before many times, State Department spokesman John Kirby on Tuesday reiterated the argument that U.S. engagement has improved the HRC, even while acknowledging the presence of rights-violating nations.
He welcomed the return of the U.S. to the HRC this year, after a one-year mandatory break.
“Since joining it, we’ve made remarkable strides toward helping the council realize its full potential, working in partnership with a wide range of member-states, and often in spite of council members that have poor human rights records,” he said.
Kirby listed as some of the administration’s successes the creation of commissions of inquiry for Syria, North Korea, and Burundi, and “the first ever resolution in the U.N. system which created an independent expert on violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”
“We’re going to look forward to continuing to work with other members of the council to strengthen and protect human rights around the world,” he said. “And we’re not bashful about calling it like we see it when it comes to human rights violators wherever they sit.”
But the HRC’s widely-acknowledged two biggest deficiencies – a compromised membership and a disproportionate critical focus on Israel – remain in place. (Israel is the only country in the world to be the subject of a permanent agenda item at the council.)
The first flaw, which contributes inevitably to the second (since many autocracies are hostile towards Israel), was built in when the U.N. negotiated the creation of a new body to replace the badly-discredited, 60-year-old U.N. Commission on Human Rights 12 years ago.
At the time, the Bush administration pushed for HRC membership to be prohibited for any country subject to Security Council sanctions for human rights abuses or terrorism. It also wanted candidates for HRC membership to require the support of a two-thirds majority of the full U.N. General Assembly in elections each year – in the hope this would make it easier to exclude egregious rights violators.
Neither proposal survived the negotiations, however. For those reasons, and others, the Bush administration did not support the resolution that created the HRC. (After observing the new body’s sessions for a while, it eventually ended even that low level of engagement.)
The final resolution in 2006 permitted any U.N. member-state to stand for election, with only a simple majority vote needed to succeed.
Member-states were asked to take into account candidates’ human rights records when voting, but without stipulating how that would be defined or measured.
And with voting taking place by secret ballot, many countries over the years since have evidently ignored that request: Some of the candidates with the worst human rights records have received some of the biggest vote tallies.
Geographic distribution, closed slates
Another key factor contributing to the questionable membership is the adherence to the broader U.N. custom of “equitable geographical distribution.”
Rather than open all 47 HRC seats to the best possible candidates from the global community, the resolution that established the HRC in 2006 determined that African and Asian countries should have 13 seats each, Latin America eight, the Western group seven, and Eastern Europe six.
Coupled with that, many regional groups offer “closed slates” in the annual HRC election – putting forward the same number of candidates as there are seats available for their group. The practice has long been condemned by critics who say the absence of competition makes a mockery of the “election” process.
Of the 11 “not free” countries that will be members of the HRC this year, not one received fewer than 73.5 percent of the votes of the 193-member General Assembly – and some received more than 90 percent.
The 11, along with the votes each one received, are: Burundi (162), China (180), Congo (185), Cuba (160), Egypt (173), Ethiopia (186), Iraq (173), Qatar (142), Rwanda (176), Saudi Arabia (152) and United Arab Emirates (159).
The full HRC membership in 2017 is:
--Free (21): Belgium, Botswana, Brazil, Britain, Croatia, El Salvador, Germany, Hungary, India, Japan, Latvia, Mongolia, Netherlands, Panama, Portugal, South Korea, South Africa, Slovenia, Switzerland, Tunisia and the United States
--Not free (11): Burundi, China, Congo, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Qatar, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and the UAE
--Partly free (15): Albania, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Cote d’Ivoire, Ecuador, Georgia, Indonesia, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Paraguay, Philippines, Sierra Leone, Togo and Venezuela