Eighteen members were elected by the United Nations General Assembly to the Human Rights Council on Nov. 12. The members, serving three-year terms beginning Jan. 1, join 29 other countries on the council.
Of the 18 new members, only the United States was seeking a second term. The other states chosen were Argentina, Brazil, Estonia, Ethiopia, Gabon, Germany, Ireland, Ivory Coast, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Montenegro, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, South Korea, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela.
The 17 countries leaving the council include China, Russia, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Mexico. With China, Russia and Cuba gone, the human rights body, the highest such policy-making institution in the UN, could temporarily gain “a brief window for a more effective council,” wrote Brett D. Schaefer in an essay for the Heritage Foundation.
The new members were elected by an absolute majority (97 votes of 193 General Assembly members) through direct secret ballot. The nominees were picked from the UN regional blocs: five from Africa; five from Asia-Pacific; two from Eastern Europe; three from Latin America and Caribbean; and three from Western Europe and Others Group (WEOG).
The only real competition took place among the Western Europe and Others Group, a race deemed formidably tight for the UN: Germany, Ireland and the US contending with Greece and Sweden for three seats.
The remaining regional groups had no competition – called “fixed slates” – rendering the secret ballot virtually obsolete. A report this month by the independent Geneva-based UN Watch and its New York affiliate, Human Rights Foundation, pointed out that the lack of competition in the elections significantly diminishes the council’s credibility. Although members of the General Assembly can vote for any country that is eligible for a seat, including those not nominated, fixed slates usually ensure that nominees win.
Fixed slates are particularly problematic when candidates with poor human-rights records are guaranteed seats. This year Ethiopia, Pakistan and Venezuela were elected without contest despite the fact they have received major criticism for their human-rights records.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch Americas division, recently sent a letter to President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, highlighting the areas where his country fails to meet the eligibility criteria for election to the council. “When it comes to promoting and protecting human rights,” Vivanco wrote, “Venezuela currently falls far short of acceptable standards.”
The African Union has similarly received criticism from civil society groups for endorsing Ethiopia and Sudan. While Sudan withdrew its candidature after protest and pressure, including from the US, Ethiopia was elected with ease. UN Watch evaluated that 7 of the 18 nominees, including Ethiopia, were ineligible on the basis of their human-rights history: Ivory Coast, Gabon, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela. Kenya and Sierra Leone, which also won, had “problematic records and questionable candidacies.”
Although the General Assembly is responsible for electing members based on a country’s promotion of human rights, choosing states with contentious rights behavior is a legacy of the council’s controversial predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights. Dissolved in 2006, membership in the commission had been perceived as a way of diverting criticism for human-rights abuses back home. It was known as the Dictators’ Club.
America’s commitment to the commission’s replacement, the Human Rights Council, has been ambivalent. The George W. Bush administration declined to nominate the US for election to the council at all. President Obama rescinded the policy in 2009, despite continued bias of the council against Israel. Since 2006, 2.7 percent of actions in the council were directed toward Israel, with the US and China second and third, at 2.07 percent and 2.04 percent, respectively.
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, told the press after the election that “four years ago, we took the decision that we could improve the work of the Human Rights Council by working within it rather than staying on the outside, and today the international community reaffirmed that it agrees with the judgment.”
Rice noted the council’s flaws as well, particularly its “excessive focus on Israel” but also its better work, including keeping an eye on if not condemning rights abuses in Syria, Sudan and Libya. She also cited the council’s support of lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender rights and its efforts to keep defamation of religion off the agenda.
Indeed, there are reports that Syria intends to run for a seat in the 2013 elections, even though it withdrew its earlier candidacy in 2011. But the US and others remain unconvinced that the Assad regime has abandoned plans to do so again despite the country’s 20-month civil war. With fixed slates and no true competition in the Asia-Pacific group, Syria could conceivably obtain a seat for the 2014-2016 term if it decides to run.
Yet international pressure succeeded in convincing Sudan to pull its candidacy this year, given that its president, Omar al-Bashir, is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether council members can ensure that fixed slates do not allow regimes that commit mass atrocities, such as Syria, to sit on the Human Rights Council.
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Alice Volkov has a master’s degree from the Graduate School of International Affairs at Australian National University in Canberra. She wrote her thesis on the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and the intervention in Libya in 2011. Recently, she was an intern with the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Center in New Delhi. Her areas of interest also include strategies for preventing mass atrocity crimes; international development practices relating to the governance sector; and criminal justice reform. Volkov received a bachelor’s degree, with honors, in history from the University of Melbourne.