U.N. Human Rights Council Losing Controversial Members, As Others Prepare to Join

February 23, 2012 - 4:25 AM
HRC building

The Human Rights Council meets at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, in the Palais des Nations. (Photo: UNOG)

(CNSNews.com) – The composition of the U.N. Human Rights Council may improve slightly this year, as several of its most controversial members depart – not out of choice, but because council rules do not allow a country to serve more than two consecutive three-year terms.

Among those departing in the summer are Cuba, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, Cameroon and Jordan, all of whom won seats on the Geneva-based HRC in its inaugural election in 2006, and then again in 2009.

Cuba, Saudi Arabia and China were listed by democracy watchdog Freedom House last June among the world’s worst human rights abusers. Russia, Cameroon and Jordan did not make that 17-strong blacklist, but are designated “not free” in Freedom House’s annual rankings, based on scores for political rights and civil liberties.

While those countries leave, others that will be seeking seats when the council holds its annual election in the spring reportedly include Pakistan and Venezuela, a Geneva-based non-governmental organization, U.N. Watch reported on Wednesday.

A perennial criticism of the HRC has been the presence of countries with poor human rights records (see graph). They typically join forces to block Western-led initiatives they oppose, to defend each other against criticism, or to push controversial resolutions such as those seeking to counter “defamation of religion.”

The troubling membership and conduct of such countries were among the main reasons the HRC’s predecessor, the 60 year-old U.N. Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), was scrapped six years ago.

To avoid a repeat of the de facto permanent membership enjoyed by some powerful countries in the UNCHR, the drafters of the resolution creating the HRC stipulated that no country may serve more than two consecutive three-year terms, before taking a break of at least one year.

Several other major criticisms of the UNCHR were not rectified in the finalizing of HRC procedures, however, and they continue to dog the council. They include the absence of any enforceable criteria for membership, and the practice of “closed slates” – in which the U.N.’s five regional groups invariably nominate the same number of countries as there are seats available for their group, thus doing away with any contest.

The U.S. twice tried to fix the problems: When the creation of the HRC was first being negotiated, the Bush administration pushed for membership to be barred to any country under U.N. sanctions for human rights abuses or terrorism. It also wanted council members to be selected by a two-thirds majority vote of the General Assembly.

Neither proposal made it through to the final text. Instead a simple majority vote applies – 97 of the General Assembly’s 192 members, rather than 128 members as proposed by the U.S. – and membership is open to all U.N. member states.

Although governments are asked to take into account candidates’ human rights records at election time, voting takes place by secret ballot and some 20 countries with widely-criticized records have been elected – often by large majorities.

Last year the HRC held a five-year review, and the U.S. again pushed to improve membership standards.

The Obama administration suggested that the closed slate practice be abolished, and that every candidate state should, ahead of the election, be required to defend its human rights record through an “interactive dialogue” with U.N. member states and civil society groups. Again, both of its key recommendations were shot down.

Despite this, a senior State Department official in a speech last September spoke about the “radical transformation” of the HRC, attributing the progress to U.S. leadership.

‘Credibility caucus’

Last month Joseph Torsella, U.S. deputy ambassador for U.N. management and reform, pledged, again, to step up efforts to prevent the election of rights-abusing nations onto the HRC

He said the U.S. aimed to build “a kind of ‘credibility caucus’ to promote truly competitive elections, rigorous application of membership criteria, and other reforms aimed at keeping the worst offenders on the sidelines.”

According to U.N. Watch, however, Pakistan and Venezuela are in line for seats this year because both of their regional groups – Asia and Latin America – are preparing to include them in closed slates.

Hillel Neuer, the NGO’s executive director, called the situation “an outrage.”

“[Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez throws judges and critics in jail, bullies young student activists and uses his U.N. vote to shield the atrocities of others. Venezuela just voted against U.N. action on the horrific massacres perpetrated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” he said.

“Pakistan persecutes religious minorities, including Sufis, Shiites, Ahmadis and Christians. Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, is on death row in Pakistan under Pakistan’s medieval blasphemy law,” Neuer said. “Pakistan’s judicial system punishes women who are victimized by rape instead of the rapists. That Pakistan might judge others on human rights is appalling.”

U.N. Watch said it plans to bring together lawmakers and human rights groups in a bid to block both candidacies. It urged the Asia and Latin American groups to put up other candidates.

Pakistan has in fact already served two terms, but is eligible to stand again because its first term was for two rather than three years (After the 2006 election, lots were drawn to decide which new members would serve one-, two- or three-year terms, in order to facilitate a staggered process each year.)

Venezuela ran for a seat in 2006 but was unsuccessful, a situation largely attributed to the fact that those inaugural elections featured competitive slates for all five regional groups.

In fact, of the six annual elections held for the HRC since it was established, only the first one saw contests in all five regional groups.

In 2007 and 2011, only two groups had contests; in 2008 three groups offered contested slates; and in 2009 and 2010, there was no competition in any group.

The HRC’s first session for the year begins on Monday, February 27, and runs through March 23.