UN Members Unlikely to Reject Russia in This Week's Human Rights Council Election

By Patrick Goodenough | October 24, 2016 | 4:30am EDT
Delegates cast their countries' ballots as the U.N. General Assembly elects members of the U.N. Human Rights Council, on October 28, 2015. This year's election will take place on Friday. (UN Photo/Cia Pak)

(Corrects figures in paragraph eight to reflect the high levels of support Russia and China received in a previous secret ballot election)

(CNSNews.com) – At a time of deepening concern over Moscow’s contribution to the carnage in Syria, this week’s annual election for members of the U.N. Human Rights Council provides U.N. member states with the opportunity to vote Russia off the top rights body for the first time.

U.N. bodies’ membership is organized under regional groups, and ahead of Friday’s election the Eastern European group has put up a rare competitive slate – three candidates for just two seats earmarked for that region. (Far more common are “closed slates,” where regions nominate the same number of countries as the number of vacancies, making it an “election” in name only.)

Russia, which is ranked “not free” by the democracy watchdog Freedom House, will be competing with two “free” countries – Hungary and Croatia – for the two Eastern European seats.

While Russia could therefore be outvoted, given the history and pattern of voting at the U.N., the chances of that happening are very slim. Russia has never not held a seat in the HRC, with the exception of 2013, when it took a mandatory one-year break after serving two consecutive terms. It was back a year later.

Voting for the 47 seats on the Geneva-based HRC takes place in the full U.N. General Assembly, in a secret ballot vote which protects countries from being challenged about – or embarrassed by – their vote choices.

Membership is granted by a simple majority vote, 97 of the General Assembly’s 193 members, so it is possible for a candidate, even in a closed slate, to fail to pass that threshold, although it has hardly ever happened.

Over the decade since the HRC was established, countries ranked as “not free” have accounted for anywhere between eight (2009) and 13 (2010) of the 47 members.

Many of them have received far more than the 97 vote minimum, indicating that many democracies have gone along, under the cover of by the secret ballot. (For example, Cuba has scored as many as 163 votes 163, Saudi Arabia 154, Gaddafi’s Libya 155, Algeria 168 and Qatar 177. Three years ago, Russia and China received 176 votes each, a result which, the Geneva-based non-governmental organization U.N. Watch noted, meant that at least half of the members of the European Union likely voted for them.)

Short of an unprecedented defeat on Friday for Russia – or an equally unlikely defeat for Cuba in the only other regional group to submit a competitive slate – 12 “not free” countries (25 percent) are expected to be members of the HRC next year. They are Burundi, China, Congo, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Qatar, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

‘We are indulging a culture of impunity’

HRC aspirants may put forward a justification for their candidacy. Moscow’s  submission this year, presented by ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin, asserts that “Russia worked hard to make the council an efficient and effective tool for promoting and protecting human rights throughout the world” during its HRC terms, and pledges to continue doing so if re-elected.

“Russia is firmly attached to such fundamental values as freedom, justice, life, well-being and human dignity, family traditions, political equality, integrity of the court system, responsibility of leadership, social guarantees and the eradication of poverty and corruption,” it says.

In fact, Russia regularly teams up with other autocracies, typically including China, Cuba, left-wing Latin American countries and members of the Islamic bloc, trying to frustrate initiatives brought by free democracies on the council.

As recently as Friday, voting on an HRC resolution calling for a special inquiry into the situation in Aleppo illustrated the trend.

Russia, which along with its Assad regime ally has been accused of war crimes as they bomb rebel-held parts of the city, was joined by Algeria, Bolivia, Burundi, China, Cuba and Venezuela in opposing the measure. (On this occasion, Islamic states did not join the “no” group since they mostly oppose the Assad regime.)

HRC seats become vacant in batches of one-third, so there are 14 seats to be filled on Friday.

The United States, having taken a mandatory year off in 2016, will be standing for the council again. As the Western regional group is putting forward a closed slate – two candidates for two vacancies – its success is a formality.

The last two regional groups, Africa and Asia, have also submitted closed slates, comprising four candidates for four vacancies each. Countries from those regions that are all but guaranteed seats on the council next year include Egypt, Rwanda, China, Iraq and Saudi Arabia – all “not free” in the assessment of Freedom House.

Historically, Canada has been one of the strongest voices for democratic values at the HRC, and a group of cross-party Canadian lawmakers has been urging their government to vote against major human rights abusers who seek to join the council next year.

“Not only are they not being held to account, they are being rewarded with a seat on the Human Rights Council,” former lawmaker and former Attorney General of Canada Irwin Cotler told a press conference in Ottawa earlier this month. “We are indulging a culture of impunity; we’re even rewarding them for their human rights violation.”

U.N. Watch is urging people around the world to petition their governments to oppose a seat specifically for Russia on the HRC.

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