By Javier El-Hage & Roberto Gonzalez
Today, the United Nations general assembly will elect 14 of the 47 members of the Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the organization’s main body tasked with protecting and promoting human rights globally. Appallingly, six notorious dictatorships — China, Cuba, Egypt, Russia, Rwanda, and Saudi Arabia — are running for reelection for a new three-year term. By gaining these highly coveted seats, which they consistently use to exercise a heckler’s veto, authoritarian regimes seek to prevent any significant exposure of their horrendous human-rights records.
The UNHRC was established in 2006 with the authority to appoint U.N. special procedures (working groups, independent experts, special rapporteurs, etc.), assess the human rights situation among the 193 member states of the U.N. through its Universal Periodic Review, and receive individual complaints. In practice, around 22 authoritarian regimes — roughly 47 percent of its members — control the council’s agenda, using their seats to block resolutions against friendly dictatorships, disproportionately criticize Israel, paint a rosy picture of their own dictatorial records, and shut down victims of human-rights abuses.
Authoritarian regimes with a leading voice in the council include Ethiopia, Venezuela, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Burundi. Their hijacking of the council is not a recent trend. The UNHRC was created in order to replace the Human Rights Commission, a body established in 1946, which was disbanded after it infamously elected Muammar Qaddafi as president in 2003.
Prior to its disappearance, the commission suffered a barrage of criticism and vilification precisely because many of its members were dictatorial regimes. Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary general at the time, said in 2005 that “the commission’s capacity to perform its tasks” was “undermined by its declining credibility and professionalism.” In particular, Annan criticized the states that had “sought membership of the commission not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others;” resulting in a “credibility deficit” that cast a “shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole.”
To prevent the disaster that was the Human Rights Commission from happening again, the U.N. General Assembly established a set of minimum standards that states should fulfill if they wished to join the newly created council. Its founding resolution mandated that states “take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto.” The resolution also stated that the candidates “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”
So, based on the selection criteria developed by the U.N. general assembly itself, no country that violates human rights systematically and that is likely to use its membership to undermine the protection of human-rights victims should even be allowed to run for election.
If we evaluate these two aspects among the 17 candidates bidding for this year’s 14 seats, only the democratic states of Japan, Hungary, Croatia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are qualified to serve on the council. Tunisia (a state transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy) and the democracies of Guatemala and South Africa (with questionable voting records at the U.N.) are questionable candidates, while the authoritarian regimes of China, Cuba, Egypt, Iraq, Malaysia, Russia, Rwanda, and Saudi Arabia are clearly unqualified candidates.
What should the world’s democracies do? Obviously, they should oppose the bids by authoritarian regimes and cast their votes only in favor of fellow democracies. However, past elections suggest we shouldn’t be holding our breath. Last year, Ethiopia — one of the world’s worst regimes — was elected with 186 votes; Burundi with 162; United Arab Emirates, 159; Laos, 105; Ecuador, 152; and Venezuela, 131. This means that a good portion of the world’s liberal democracies (which account for at least 52 percent of states sitting at the U.N.) voted for these human-rights violators.
The truth remains that many democratic governments, such as El Salvador’s, prefer to vote alongside influential dictatorships like Cuba for ideological reasons. Others, such as Brazil or India, are simply too busy trying to remain economically relevant to even risk opposing the pernicious leadership of commercial giants like China, the world’s chief importer of commodities from the developing world. Moreover, UNHRC elections are traditionally secret so democracies risk little backlash for their votes.
Today’s almost certain election of China, Cuba, Egypt, Iraq, Malaysia, Russia, Rwanda, and Saudi Arabia to the Human Rights Council unfortunately evokes the discredited commission that preceded it. Ten years after its foundation, the council shows today the same symptoms of terminal disease that put democratic countries in the uncomfortable position of participating in the farce that was the original commission.
Out of principle, the world’s democracies must use their U.N. seats to raise their voices against the authoritarian states who use the council’s bully pulpit to silence their domestic human-rights victims.
— Javier El-Hage is the chief legal officer of the New York–based Human Rights Foundation. Roberto González is the international legal associate at the Human Rights Foundation.