Nearly two and a half years after the United States withdrew from the Human Rights Council, China and Russia have just won elected seats in the body. Both countries suffer from human-rights abuses against their own populations.
China and Russia join 13 others as Council members for three-year terms starting on Jan. 1, 2021, but Saudi Arabia, another highly visible human-rights offender, was the surprise loser, not winning enough votes for a seat.
China has been criticized by dozens of countries for its harsh treatment of the Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang Province and numbing crackdowns on protesters in Hong Kong. This month, Russia was accused by Europeans of poisoning a prominent Russian dissident, Alexei Navalny.
The only competitive slate in the election, held physically in the General Assembly Hall on Oct. 13, was the Asia-Pacific regional group: five countries — China, Nepal, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan — seeking four seats. The final tally was Pakistan: 169; Uzbekistan: 169; Nepal: 150; China: 139; Saudi Arabia: 90.
The other new Council members are Gabon, Ivory Coast, Malawi and Senegal for the Africa region; Bolivia, Cuba and Mexico for the Latin America and Caribbean region; Ukraine and Russia taking the Eastern European seats; and Britain and France securing the two seats open in the Western European and Others Group, known as Weog. The lowest numbers of votes received overall were Saudi Arabia, 90; China, 139; Nepal, 150; and Russia, 158. UN members are elected directly by secret ballot; to win, a candidate must receive 97 votes, which is a majority of the General Assembly’s 193 countries.
China is a regular member of the Council, having held four previous terms; Russia has held three. The Council mandates a gap year for members who have held two consecutive terms. China and Saudi Arabia were last elected, unopposed, to the Council in 2016. Russia lost that election, the first time a permanent member of the Security Council to do so.
Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN then, recounted in her memoir, “The Education of an Idealist,” that instructions from Washington, D.C., told her to vote for Russia, in a tradition of the permanent members of the Security Council casting reciprocal votes. She wrote in her book that the Human Rights Council was an “important influence over the direction of human rights investigations, but the elections themselves were an unseemly exercise.”
In the 2016 contest, Russia, Croatia and Hungary were competing for the two seats in the Eastern European group. But Power, as a US Cabinet official with flexibility in her role, voted against Russia. It had invaded Ukraine and backed the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, she reasoned, so she cast her vote away from the superpower. Power wrote that the final count — Hungary, 144; Croatia, 114; Russia, 112 — meant that if she had voted for Russia and not for Croatia, the resulting tiebreaker would likely have gone Russia’s way.
The US endured its own election blow in 2001 in the Human Rights Commission, the predecessor to the Council.
Alarm bells have been ringing for months by international activists and human-rights advocates about China, Russia and Saudi Arabia possibly regaining seats on the 47-member Council, an intergovernmental body that was established in 2006 to strengthen “the promotion and protection of human rights” and overcome the flaws of its predecessor.
The numerous campaigns to stop the three countries from rejoining the Council may not have kept the Russians and Chinese delegations out but they may have hurt the Saudis. Cuba, another country with a poor human-rights record, was re-elected as well, having last held a seat from 2016 to 2019.
“It’s no surprise that States that have worked for decades to weaken human rights norms and UN human rights mechanisms sought re-election to the Council this year,” Felice Gaer, the director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights and a former vice chair of the UN Committee Against Torture, wrote in an email to PassBlue.
“They know they can carry out this campaign most effectively when they are full members of the body,” she continued. “The more important question is why more rights-respecting countries from each of their geographic regions didn’t seek membership on the Council. It just doesn’t seem to be a priority for them, even in this 75th anniversary year. It’s a tragedy, given that ‘disregard and contempt for human rights’ is precisely what the Universal Declaration warns against in its preamble!”
Years ago, when the US threatened to withdraw from the Council, human-rights specialists and many countries warned the US that the Council’s reputation and work would suffer if the US left and that it would enable rights-abusing countries to be accepted into the body. Yet the main focus on who will win each year’s election can also deflect from a deeper problem in how the Council’s membership materializes, some rights experts say.
“Instead of advocates focusing on the predetermined winners every year, much better use could be made of the elections to generate pressures to improve the effectiveness of the Council,” Peter Splinter, a former representative of Amnesty International to the UN in Geneva, wrote in an email to PassBlue. “For instance, rarely does one see the secrecy that surrounds HRC [Human Rights Council] elections in vote trading and the actual casting of ballots explored or challenged. The rules say that the General Assembly voting is secret, and many states hide behind that to refuse to discuss how they will vote or have voted.
“If Western countries or other human rights champions want to vote for China or Saudi Arabia or others because they have traded their Council vote for a vote to another UN body, or for whatever reason, that is their prerogative. However, they should have to pay a price in human rights diplomacy for those votes. Ideally that price would be to put more effort into accomplishing something positive.”
Regardless of its win, China is being increasingly ostracized in UN bodies by dozens of countries for its rights abuses even as the pandemic rages. Last week, 39 countries released a statement in the General Assembly’s human-rights committee, protesting Chinese government abuses.
“Serial rights abusers should not be rewarded with seats on the Human Rights Council,” Louis Charbonneau, the UN director at Human Rights Watch, warned at a media briefing last week. “China and Saudi Arabia have not only committed massive rights violations at home, but they have tried to undermine the international human rights system they’re demanding to be a part of.”
No tears were shed by rights activists for the Saudis’ loss. Sunjeev Bery, the executive director at Freedom Forward, a project that strives to end US alliances with nondemocratic governments, said of the results: “The latest UN Human Rights Council election reveals that more and more governments see Saudi Arabia’s monarchy as a human rights pariah that must be kept at arm’s distance.”
The voting methods for the election in the pandemic were outlined strictly by the president of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, in a memo to UN members. These included delegates arriving “early” — before 10 A.M. — to pick up their paper ballots and then moving “to their respective national seats to fill in the ballots” in the General Assembly Hall. A ballot box would be placed at the front of the chamber, and the UN officials would call on the delegates individually to cast their ballots and then leave the room. After all the ballots were cast, the meeting was to be suspended, the votes counted and the results announced by midafternoon.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted after the results: “The election of China, Russia, and Cuba to the UN Human Rights Council validates the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Council in 2018 and use other venues to protect and promote universal human rights. At #UNGA this year, we did just that.”
The US made a big show of withdrawing from the Council on June 19, 2018, holding a media event in the State Department with the US ambassador to the UN at the time, Nikki Haley, and Pompeo, but not taking questions from reporters.
Haley said she had tried to reform the UN’s most prestigious human-rights body, to no avail. Other ambassadors and their delegations, however, disagreed about her tactics, goals and one-year deadline in trying to transform the Council — using threats and high-handed demands, some diplomats and advocates have said since then.
“For too long, the Human Rights Council has been a protector of human-rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias,” Haley said in June 2018. “Regrettably, it is now clear that our call for reform was not heeded.” The US was halfway through its three-year term when it departed.
Haley was equally critical of the traditional American allies that call themselves human-rights champions, but she said they had refused to agree to her demands. She also accused activists in the small but influential community of international rights activists of trying to “block negotiations and thwart reform.” She said they did not support her efforts, stated in a letter to 18 rights groups.
The departure of the US occurred immediately after President Trump gushed over his meeting with one of the cruelest rights abusers in the world, Kim Jong Un of North Korea.
The Trump administration still hectors the Council, which is based in Geneva, for some of its most-obvious faults — like its bias against Israel — yet it relies on reports from, say, the UN high commissioner for human rights’ office, also in Geneva, to condemn the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela.
In May 2020, Joe Biden, now the Democratic Party presidential nominee, criticized President Trump over the possibility of Cuba gaining a seat on the Council.
“Trump’s international failures have cleared a path for Cuba to join the UN Human Rights Council,” Biden tweeted. “This would betray Cuba’s political prisoners and further undermine U.S. diplomacy. As President, I will lead by empowering the Cuban people and defending human rights.”
Since 2017, the Council has elected such other dubious rights defenders as the Philippines, Mauritania and Venezuela.
Keith Harper, the last American ambassador to the Council and other institutions in Geneva, said in a prescient interview with PassBlue in March 2017 that substantial gains made in the Council in the Obama years would be jeopardized if the US were to withdraw.
“Over time, countries, particularly in what’s known as the like-minded group, who do not share our values and our ideas of what human rights are, they will then define human rights,” Harper said. “China and Russia and Cuba, Venezuela — they then are dramatically empowered. That would be unfortunate, because I think we have been able to show the world the power the Council can be, and the last thing we would want to see it revert back to a place where it turns human rights on its head.”
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.