UN Human Rights Council Opens With Poorest Membership Yet; Sanctioned Iranian to Speak

By Patrick Goodenough | February 26, 2018 | 4:23 AM EST

National flags at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, home of the U.N. Human Rights Council. (U.N. Photo, File)

(CNSNews.com) – The United Nations’ top human rights body begins a four-week session in Geneva on Monday, boasting the largest numbers of autocratic and repressive regimes among its members in its 13-year history.

No fewer than 14 of the diplomats who fill the council’s 47 seats (29.7 percent) for the 37th regular session represent countries that are ranked “not free” by Freedom House, the veteran Washington-based watchdog which grades countries annually on political rights and civil liberties.

Never before since the HRC was established in 2006 has the number of “not free” members been that high. Previously the largest contingent of “not free” members was 13 (27.6 percent), in 2010, and the smallest number was eight (17 percent), in 2009.

The fact that the HRC’s membership includes some governments that are themselves human rights violators is one of two specific concerns cited by the Trump administration in its warnings that U.S. cooperation with the council could be curtailed.

The other is what U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley in a speech to the HRC last June called its “chronic anti-Israel bias.” (The two are not unrelated: Member-states with the poorest human rights records tend to be among the most hostile towards Israel.)

The 14 current HRC members who are graded “not free” by Freedom House are Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, China, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Qatar, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela.

(Graph: CNSNews.com Data: United Nations HRC, Freedom House)

As with previous regular session, this one begins with a “high-level segment,” when countries – not just the 47 HRC member-states but all U.N. member-states – are invited to put forward a senior representative to address the body.

According to the HRC, this provides “senior dignitaries” the opportunity to “highlight human rights issues of national and international interest and concern.” About 100 such individuals are expected to speak this week.

Iran has chosen to send as its representative a man who is subject to European Union sanctions for “human rights violations, arbitrary arrests, denials of prisoners’ rights and an increase in executions.”

As reported earlier, Justice Minister Alireza Avayi is also accused by the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) of being a member of one of the regime’s notorious “death commissions” which ordered the extrajudicial executions of thousands of dissidents three decades ago.

Haley said Sunday the HRC “should be ashamed” at the decision to let him speak. Avayi, she said in a statement, was “responsible for some of the worst human rights violations in Iran, including preventing political freedoms and promoting repression, violence, and extrajudicial killings of political prisoners.”

“Yet again the council discredits itself by allowing serial human rights abusers to highjack its work and make a mockery of its mandate to promote universal human rights,” she said.

Haley added a veiled warning about the future of U.S. engagement with the HRC.

“This does nothing but reinforce the United States’ call for much needed reforms at the council for it to be viewed as a good investment of our time and money.”

Last June Haley addressed the HRC in Geneva and reiterated that “the United States is looking carefully at this council and our participation in it.”

‘Wide participation’ encouraged

HRC secretariat spokesman Rolando Gomez confirmed from Geneva that Avayi is scheduled to speak on Tuesday but stressed that “it is solely the responsibility of states to determine who they wish to designate to speak at the council.”

He added that the HRC “encourages wide participation in all of its meetings in order to hear and allow for a wide array of views to be expressed, which in turn informs states before they take action aimed at benefiting those the council serves – the countless human rights victims around the globe.”

This HRC session will include discussions on human rights situations in Syria, Burundi, South Sudan, and Burma, and there will be a special focus on the rights of children in conflict zones and on people with disabilities.

In addition Israel features on the session’s program, as is the case during every regular HRC session. Out of 193 U.N. member states, Israel alone is the subject of a permanent item on the council agenda.

As a result, it is the subject of many more condemnatory resolutions than any other country.

Data compiled by the NGO Human Rights Voices show that, between the HRC’s establishment in 2006 and 2016, it passed a total of 239 resolutions – of which 67 (28 percent) targeted Israel.

By comparison, the next highest numbers of resolutions dealt with situations in Syria (9.2 percent), Burma (6.2 percent) and Sudan (5.8 percent).

Countries with poor rights record that have not faced a single critical HRC resolution include China, Cuba, Russia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

Apart from the 14 “not free” members of the council this year, there are 21 members graded “free” by Freedom House and 12 graded “partly free.”

The full membership is:

FREE:  Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Chile, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Mongolia, Panama, Peru, Senegal, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Tunisia, United States.

PARTLY FREE: Cote d’Ivoire, Ecuador, Georgia, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Togo, Ukraine.

NOT FREE: Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, China, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Qatar, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela.


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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow