China, Russia Insist Libya’s Suspension From U.N. Human Rights Council ‘Not a Precedent’

By Patrick Goodenough | March 2, 2011 | 4:29am EST

The U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, March 1, 2011 adopted a resolution suspending Libya from the U.N. Human Rights Council. (UN Photo by Paulo Filgueiras)

( – Tuesday’s decision to suspend Libya from the United Nations Human Rights Council was widely praised, but the move does nothing to ensure that membership criteria for the top human rights body will be tightened in the future.

Meeting in New York, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution suspending Libya from the HRC “by consensus,” without a recorded vote.

It is the first time the HRC has taken such a step since it began operating in 2006. The organization that it replaced, the 60 year-old U.N. Commission on Human Rights, had no mechanism for suspension of a member.

After Tuesday’s decision, the representatives of China and Russia stressed that it does not establish a precedent. Human rights advocacy groups frequently deplore the fact that China, Russia and a number of other countries with poor records on human rights are themselves members of the HRC.

The resolution was adopted without a recorded vote, as no member-state requested that one be held.

Countries usually press for a recorded vote when they strongly favor or oppose a resolution and want to be seen publicly to do so – at the same time ensuring that every other member state must go on the record for or against the measure.

Critics of U.N. practices say failure to call for a recorded vote can allow countries to “hide behind consensus.”

For instance, while no country raised an objection to the Libya resolution at the time of its adoption “by consensus” on Tuesday, Nicaragua’s envoy complained to the General Assembly afterwards that the suspension set “a bad precedent,” while Venezuela’s ambassador called the step premature, and Cuba’s delegate said his country has opposed all along the mechanism that allows a HRC member to be suspended.

‘Wake-up call’

The suspension of Libya, a country where serious rights abuses had been reported for many years before the current crisis, turns a spotlight again onto the way countries become members of the HRC in the first place.

Members are voted onto the 47-seat council by the General Assembly, which is required to take into account candidates’ human rights records when voting.

Nonetheless the General Assembly, voting by secret ballot, has by large majorities voted onto the council countries with poor rights records including China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Pakistan.

In the most recent election, last May, 155 countries out of 188 present and voting, supported Libya’s candidacy. The fact that only 33 countries did not back Libya means that even some liberal democracies, under cover of the secret ballot, voted for Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.

In the current HRC only 20 members – fewer than half – are countries that the democracy watchdog Freedom House rates as “free,” based on scores for political freedoms and civil liberties.

Libya should never have been elected to sit on the Human Rights Council,” Israeli ambassador Meron Reuben told the General Assembly on Tuesday.

He said the situation “should serve as a wake-up call as we also deliberate the future of the Human Rights Council and its membership.”

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice speaks at the U.N. General Assembly after a vote to suspend Libya from the U.N. Human Rights Council on Tuesday, March 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Libya’s suspension comes at a time when a five-year review of the HRC is underway, a process intended to improve some of the failings and weaknesses that have emerged since its creation.

A “working group” of interested members was established to hammer out a report on recommended improvements. It held two rounds of negotiating meetings, in October and February, before adopting the report last week.

But the report suggests no changes to way the council seats are filled.

During the negotiation sessions, the U.S. delegation said it recognized that “the issue of membership is highly contested,” but pushed for concrete ways to be found to ensure that candidates’ human rights records are taken into account.

It suggested that, ahead of the elections each spring, candidates should have to discuss their contributions to protecting and promoting human rights during an interactive dialogue at the General Assembly.

The U.S. also called for an end to “closed slates” – where regional groups put forward the same number of candidates as there are vacancies, thus depriving countries of the ability to choose between candidates.

“There should be more candidate countries from each region than available openings on the council, to allow for full evaluation of candidate countries,” the U.S. delegation said during a working group session last October.

The U.S. suggestions never made it into the final report, however. Although it was “adopted by consensus” last week, the U.S. in a statement afterwards registered its “lack of support for final outcome,” citing among other things a failure to address the issue of “membership and greater scrutiny of the human rights records of those countries that offer themselves for election to this body.”

‘Time to take membership seriously’

A major criticism of the HRC, and one of the reasons the Bush administration gave for voting against the U.N. resolution that established it, is that it was not designed in such a way that countries with strong rights records would fill its ranks.

As with other U.N. bodies, membership is broken down into the U.N.’s five recognized regional groups.

At any one time, only seven of the 47 seats are held by members of the Western group, while Asia and Africa get 13 seats each, Latin America eight seats and Eastern Europe six.

The situation is aggravated by a lack of competition resulting from uncontested regional slates.

Although dozens of human rights advocacy groups around the world have urged governments to end the “closed slate” practice, in the May 2010 election not one of the five regional groups put forward more candidates than vacancies.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), that practice may continue this year, as only one regional group, Latin America, has so far put forward more candidates than there are seats available for that group.

“With HRC elections approaching, members of the General Assembly should be asking themselves why Libya was elected in the first place,” HRW global advocacy director Peggy Hicks said Tuesday.

“It’s time for the General Assembly to take seriously the standards it set for membership on the Human Rights Council, and apply them to countries seeking to join the body in the future.”

One-third of the council seats come up for election each year. The 15 seats that will be up for election in May are those currently held by Argentina, Brazil and Chile (Latin America group); Bahrain, Japan, Pakistan and South Korea (Asia); Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana and Zambia (Africa); Slovakia and Ukraine (Eastern Europe); and Britain and France (Western group).

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