In a secret ballot, U.N. General Assembly members in New York voted to fill 18 three-year vacancies on the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, a key setting for the Obama administration’s policy of deepening engagement with the U.N.
Out of 193 possible votes, the United States received 131, while Germany had 127 and Ireland 124. The other 15 countries all received more votes, including top-scoring Gabon (187 votes), an autocracy ruled by the same party since 1968, rated as “not free” by Freedom House, the Washington-based democracy watchdog.
An additional four countries ranked “not free” were elected to the HRC with large majorities – United Arab Emirates (184 votes), Cote d’Ivoire (183), Kazakhstan (183) and Ethiopia (178).
They were joined by four countries assessed by Freedom House as “partly free” – Sierra Leone (183 votes), Kenya (180), Pakistan (171) and Venezuela (154).
The remaining six countries elected are graded “free” – Estonia (184), Brazil (184), Japan (182), Montenegro (182), South Korea (176) and Argentina (176).
In a report released ahead of the election Freedom House said that based on countries’ U.N. voting records on human rights-related issues, as well as its own annual rankings – which come from scores given for political freedoms and civil liberties – none of the five “not free” countries deserved a seat on the HRC, and neither did Pakistan or Venezuela.
It said further that the qualifications of Brazil, Kenya, and Sierra Leone were “questionable.”
From January 1 the 47-member HRC will include 23 “free” countries, two more than this year. There will be 10 “not free” countries, down from 12 this year, and 14 “partly free,” unchanged from this year.
Since the council was created in 2006 the largest number of “free” members it has had is 25, or 53 percent of the total. Next year 49 percent of the members will be “free.”
Democracies will have fewer high-profile autocracies to contend with in 2013, as China, Russia, Cuba and Saudi Arabia will all step down in line with term limits. No country may serve more than two consecutive three-year terms without a break of at least one year.
Cuba has been a particularly outspoken and combative member of the council, a role likely to be taken up by its close ally, Venezuela.
Speaking to reporters after the vote, Venezuelan ambassador Jorge Valero Briceno said Venezuela’s victory came despite a “campaign unleashed” by critics against its bid, and was a “testament to the success that Venezuela has in the exercise and enjoyment of human rights.”
Meanwhile Pakistan, which in recent years has led Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) initiatives – including a divisive controversial “defamation of religion” campaign – will return for three more years. In total the OIC will controls 16 seats in 2013, 34 percent of the council votes.
No enforceable criteria for membership
In Monday’s election, the Western group was the only one of the five U.N.-recognized regions to have a competitive slate, with five candidates running for three available seats. The U.S., Germany and Ireland beat Sweden and Greece for the three seats.
Every other group put forward the same number of candidates as there were vacancies. Even so, each aspirant needed to receive at least a simple majority – 97 votes – to be successful, so controversial candidates could theoretically have been kept off the council. As the voting tallies show, however, the chances of that happening were remote.
The ease with which rights-violating regimes can join the HRC was one of reasons the Bush administration shunned it after its creation six years ago. During negotiations to form the body then ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton had pushed for a two-thirds majority requirement, but the proposal was shot down.
The Bush administration had also argued that membership should be barred to any country under U.N. sanctions for human rights abuses or terrorism. That proposal, too, was defeated, and membership is open to all U.N. member states.
Although governments are asked to take into account candidates’ domestic human rights records at election time, the requirement is not enforced. Voting takes place by secret ballot and – as seen again on Monday – countries with poor records continue to win seats.
The Obama administration in 2009 reversed its predecessor’s policy, embracing and joining the HRC that year. Arguing that its leadership has helped to improve the body, it sought a second term this year.
“We thank the countries that voted for us in what was a highly competitive race among several qualified Western candidates that are all strong champions of human rights,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after Monday’s vote.
“We pledge to continue to work closely with the international community to address urgent and serious human rights concerns worldwide and to strengthen the council,” she said.
“While much hard work remains to be done, especially ending the council’s disproportionate and biased focus on Israel, we look forward to cooperating with other council members to continue to address human rights concerns and to ensure that the council fully realizes its promise.”