‘Free’ Countries Once Again a Minority on U.N. Human Rights Council

May 23, 2011 - 4:23 AM

HRC

U.N. delegates converse during the General Assembly’s election of member states to the Human Rights Council, in New York on Friday, May 20, 2011. (UN Photo by Devra Berkowitz)

(CNSNews.com) – This year’s election for the U.N. Human Rights Council has, once again, produced a body that has fewer “free” countries – 21 of a total of 47 – and has more than one-third of the seats held by members of the Islamic bloc.

Among the 15 countries to win seats on the Geneva-based HRC on Friday was Congo, which joins 11 other countries ranked “not free” by the democracy advocacy group, Freedom House, based on an annual assessment of political freedoms and civil liberties.

Nonetheless, rights advocates did find some cause for cheer: In the only two regional groups to see any contest, Latin America and Eastern Europe, countries ranked “free” by Freedom House defeated candidates scoring a “partly free” grade.

In Latin America, Nicaragua’s leftist regime was edged out in a four-way race for three seats, won by Peru, Chile and Costa Rica; the Czech Republic and Romania beat Georgia in a three-way contest for two seats for the Eastern Europe group.

As expected, Kuwait secured the seat that Syria had been in line to win until President Bashar Assad withdrew his bid last week, after initially supportive Arab and Asian states bowed to pressure from Western governments and non-governmental activists. (Even though Syria was not standing, five countries still voted for it on Friday.)

Every May for the past six years the U.N. General Assembly has held an “election” to fill a proportion of seats on the 47-member HRC, the world body’s foremost human rights watchdog.

HRC

U.N. staffers carry ballot boxes used in the election of members of the Human Rights Council, in New York on Friday, May 20, 2011. (UN Photo by Devra Berkowitz)

With the exception of the inaugural vote in 2006, the procedure has been marred by “closed slates,” where regional groups endorse the same number of countries as there are seats available, thus precluding any contest.

Despite the requirement that governments take into account candidates’ human rights records, the General Assembly – voting under secret ballot – has ushered onto the council a total of 19 “not free” countries, some more than once.

In most cases, they obtained votes well in excess of the 97 required in the 192-member General Assembly.

The 19, along with the number of votes they scored, are:  China (won two elections, with vote counts of 146 and 167), Russia (137, 146), Cuba (135, 163), Saudi Arabia (126, 154), Libya (155), Egypt (168), Pakistan (149, 114), Algeria (168), Tunisia (171), Mauritania (167), Bahrain (172), Qatar (170, 177), Jordan (178), Angola (172, 170), Cameroon (171, 142), Gabon (178), Kyrgyzstan (174), Azerbaijan (103) and newcomer Congo (176).

The presence on the HRC of such countries, and their tendency to vote as a bloc against initiatives promoted by Western and other democracies, has been among the issues raised most frequently by critics, including Republican lawmakers who want the Obama administration to withdraw from the HRC and to “explore credible, alternative forums to advance human rights.”

Another target of criticism has been the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the bloc of mostly Muslim-majority states that has used the HRC to target Israel and to promote its provocative “defamation of religion” campaign.

In 2010, the OIC held a record 18 seats in the council. On Friday that remained unchanged, with three OIC members (Bahrain, Pakistan and Gabon) leaving, and three joining (Kuwait, Indonesia and Benin).

UN Watch, a Geneva-based organization that monitors the HRC, led a campaign both to deny Syria a seat, and to urge governments to vote for candidates with strong rights records. It argued that neither Congo, Nicaragua nor Kuwait deserved seats on the council.

UN Watch Hillel Neuer deplored the election of Congo and Kuwait, while calling the defeat of Nicaragua a significant achievement.

“It’s currently one of the most shameless defenders of Libya’s Col. Muammar Gaddafi and Syrian President Bashar Assad. So two dictators who are killing their own people today lost a key ally,” he said.

“We’re also delighted that Syria was pressured into pulling its bid last week.”

UN Watch also called on new members India, Indonesia and the Philippines and Burkina Faso to improve their voting records in the coming months, noting that all four had either abstained or voted against U.N. resolutions relating to rights abuses in Iran, Burma, and North Korea.

The HRC for the next year comprises:

“Free” countries (21):

Austria, Benin, Belgium, Botswana, Chile, Costa Rica, Czech, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Mauritius, Mexico, Norway, Peru, Poland, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, United States and Uruguay.

“Not free” (12):

Angola, Cameroon, China, Congo, Cuba, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Libya (currently suspended), Mauritania, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia.

“Partly free” (14):

Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Ecuador, Guatemala, Kuwait, Malaysia, Maldives, Moldova, Nigeria, Philippines, Senegal, Uganda, Thailand.

The OIC members are:  Bangladesh, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Djibouti, Indonesia, Jordan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal and Uganda.