GENEVA — The annual ritual of holding elections for vacant seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council for a three-year term is set for Oct. 12. All five regional groups have clean slates: the number of candidates is equal to the number of open seats. Notwithstanding talk about the need to improve the Council’s membership — long before the American withdrawal from the body — the clean slates belie a genuine commitment to ensuring that Council members will uphold the highest standards to promote and protect human rights.
Eritrea, a candidate on the Africa slate, and Philippines, set to be re-elected from the Asia and Pacific group, are examples of results of the flawed process.
Clean slates also turn the election into an appointment process that violates the spirit of the Council’s membership rules. In addition, they undermine the Council’s credibility and effectiveness by conferring membership on some manifestly unqualified candidates that appear more concerned with protecting themselves against criticism or with criticizing others than with strengthening human rights. The Council’s membership rules responded to similar criticism against the UN Commission on Human Rights, the Council’s much-maligned predecessor, and were intended to guard against this eventuality.
The rules governing Council membership are set out in paragraphs 7 and 8 of UN General Assembly resolution A/RES/60/251. They require voting states to take into account each candidate’s contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights and its voluntary electoral pledges and commitments. Paragraph 9, which clarifies the duties of Council members, requires they uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights and cooperate fully with the Council.
The General Assembly, acting by a two-thirds majority, may suspend the rights of a Council member if it commits gross and systematic human-rights violations. This suggests that such a country should not be elected in the first place.
Clean slates are certainly inconsistent with the spirit of the rules in Resolution 60/251, which established the Council, and arguably they do not respect their letter either. They certainly mock the concept of “election” by denying UN member states the opportunity to pursue the objectives of the resolution by choosing among competing candidates.
What is the point of voting if there is no choice to be made? Theoretically, an unqualified candidate on a clean slate could be denied the 97 necessary votes in the General Assembly to be elected. However, that has never happened with the 39 clean regional slates in the history of Council elections.
There is widespread acknowledgment among countries and nongovernmental organizations of the need to improve the Council’s membership. The United States and some other countries have focused on rewriting the membership rules, but revising election rules will require consensus, which is elusive, whereas it is within the purview of every UN member state to contest an election for a Council seat.
The failure of UN member states, individually and collectively, to reject clean slates questions their resolve to improve the membership.
To improve membership, the International Service for Human Rights and Amnesty International, with the support of sympathetic governments, host hustings in New York and Geneva for candidates to present their platforms and others to test the platforms. Unfortunately, many candidates do not participate in the hustings. The Universal Rights Group publishes a detailed analysis of the candidates’ qualifications, as does the International Service for Human Rights.
While the hustings and analyses bring valuable transparency to Council elections, they have no effect on the composition of its membership when there are clean slates. At best, they help set the stage to assess later whether members have lived up to their election pledges.
If UN member states lack the political will to ensure contested slates, they should, at a minimum, conduct a rigorous vetting in their regional groups of countries seeking election. Judged against the criteria for Council membership, the inclusion of Eritrea on the African Group’s clean slate and the inclusion of the Philippines for the Asia and Pacific Group this year are shameful abdications of that responsibility.
The Council has considered Eritrea on its agenda since 2012; in June 2018, it adopted, without a vote, resolution A/HRC/RES/38/15, on the situation of human rights in the country. In the resolution, the Council condemned systematic, widespread and gross human-rights violations committed by the government. How the African Group can consider that Eritrea meets the Council membership criteria is difficult to imagine.
Members of the Council are required to “fully cooperate” with the body. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has repeatedly insulted or threatened Council special procedures experts, who are mandated to inquire into and report on human-rights issues. Threats against such UN experts demonstrate contempt for the Council and fall far short of full cooperation, which should preclude the Philippines’ re-election. But perhaps the failure to reject the Philippine candidacy is not surprising, given that the Council has been feckless in not calling out the country for Duterte’s repeated attacks on its special procedures and electing the ambassador of the Philippines as a vice president to the Council for 2018.
Regional groups cannot force their members to put themselves forward as candidates for election to the Council or formally block them from being candidates. They can, however, do more politically to encourage candidates committed to furthering human rights and to discourage candidacies of countries that fail to meet the membership criteria.
Great effort went into defining the membership rules for the Human Rights Council and great effort goes into Council elections each year. UN member countries must make far better use of that work by forgoing clean slates in all regions.
Peter Splinter is an independent human-rights consultant. He represented Amnesty International to the United Nations in Geneva from 2004 to 2016. In that role, he was closely involved in the establishment and operation of the Human Rights Council.