New Human Rights Council Members Include China and Saudi Arabia

Human Rights Council vote 2013
A conference officer collecting ballots of UN General Assembly members in the vote as to who will join the Human Rights Council for the next batch of three-year terms. EVAN SCHNEIDER/UN PHOTO

The United Nations General Assembly has elected 14 new members to three-year terms on the 45-member Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva. The new countries to serve on the council, starting on Jan. 1, 2014, are Algeria, Britain, China, Cuba, France, Macedonia, Maldives, Mexico, Morocco, Namibia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Vietnam. China, Russia and Saudi Arabia — countries with abysmal human-rights records, say monitoring groups — were unopposed in their regional groups. Human-rights organizations also questioned the suitability of Algeria and Vietnam joining the council.

The candidates for membership are voted in based on nominations from the UN’s five regional groups, with seats apportioned accordingly: Africa (13), Asia-Pacific (13), Eastern Europe (6), Latin America and Caribbean (8) and Western European and other countries (including the United States and Israel, 7).

The US is on the Human Rights Council until 2015. The other members and the end of their terms are as follows: Argentina (2015), Austria (2014), Benin (2014), Botswana (2014), Brazil (2015), Burkina Faso (2014), Chile (2014),  Costa Rica (2014), Ivory Coast (2015), Czech Republic (2014), Democratic Republic of the Congo (2014), Estonia (2015), Ethiopia (2015), Gabon (2015), Germany (2015), India (2014), Indonesia (2014), Ireland (2015), Italy (2014), Japan (2015), Kazakhstan (2015), Kenya (2015), Kuwait (2014), Montenegro (2015), Pakistan (2015), Peru (2014), Philippines (2014), Romania (2014), Sierra Leone (2015), South Korea (2015), United Arab Emirates (2015) and Venezuela (2015).

Members are elected in a secret ballot by an absolute majority of the 193 General Assembly members, so that 97 votes are required as opposed to a higher threshold of two-thirds majority. The Human Rights Council was created by the General Assembly in 2006 to address all forms of human-rights violations, replacing the much-politicized UN Commission on Human Rights. The new council also attracts a heavy dose of head-wagging, including comments on the latest elections, which occurred Nov. 12. The council holds a higher status as a subsidiary body of the General Assembly, whereas the commission was part of the Economic and Social Council.

Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, expressed her disappointment on the Nov. 12 election. “Fourteen countries were elected to the Human Rights Council today, including some that commit significant violations of the rights the Council is designed to advance and protect. Today’s election in the General Assembly is a reminder that the Council’s important work remains unfinished,” she said in a statement.

Peggy Hicks, the global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said of the vote that “human rights defenders will have their work cut out for them at the Human Rights Council next year.” Algeria, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam have refused to let UN investigators check numerous alleged abuses in their countries, Human Rights Watch says.

The rights organization also metes out criticism for Britain’s record. William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said in a statement that his country will use its new council seat, among other objectives, to “work tirelessly to protect the most vulnerable people from discrimination and to champion global causes,” yet Izza Leghtas, the Western Europe researcher for Human Rights Watch, wrote in an op-ed that Britain’smuch-trumpeted interest in human rights overseas is wholly at odds with its rhetoric here at home.”

Leghtas added, “It is difficult not to see the irony in the UK pledging to promote rights internationally while senior members of the same government attack human rights domestically on a regular basis, and increasingly as the 2015 election draws closer.” She cited government officials recently trying to “scrap the Human Rights Act, portray the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) as a tool for ‘foreign criminals’ to take advantage of this country at the expense of hardworking taxpayers, and threaten to withdraw from the binding treaty altogether.”

Master of Science in Humanitarian Studies at Fordham University

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