Despite a much condemned human rights record, Eritrea has become a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council by a vote of the General Assembly on Friday. The same vote also granted membership to Bahrain, Bangladesh, Cameroon, the Philippines and Somalia, countries which have all also drawn condemnation for human rights abuses.
In anticipation of the vote, the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights issued a report last week in which they called for the General Assembly to reject countries which have a known record of human rights abuse. Irwin Cotler, head of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre, stated that such elections to the council ‘indulges the very culture of impunity it is supposed to combat’, and called for UN member states to exercise their ‘legal right and moral obligation to refrain from voting for unqualified candidates’. UN Watch and the Human Rights Foundation have also warned that the election will undermine the principles for which the council is supposed to stand.
Eritrea’s application for membership of the Human Rights Council followed President Isaias Afwerki’s negotiation of a peace deal with Ethiopia that ended a decades-long border dispute. Despite this apparent commitment to peaceful resolution, Afwerki has remained intransigent on Eritrea’s human rights record.
Eritrea has been ruled as a dictatorship under Afewerki for the last 26 years. A Human Rights Watch World Report from earlier this year condemned the country for holding no independent judiciary or civil society organisations, the absence of freedom of the press, and severely restricted religious freedoms. Most controversial is Eritrea’s national service programme, which calls on all citizens over the age of 18 to serve in civil or military units. Due to the indefinite nature of the time required to serve, posts can last for a decade. The system was described by a UN Commission of Inquiry in 2016 as one of ‘enslavement’, which subjected Eritreans to 72-hour working weeks, rape, severe punishments and inadequate food provisions. As a result of these repressions, a UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 52,000 Eritreans escaped the country in 2016, a flow of people that the UN said would only be stemmed once the government ‘complies with its human rights obligations’.
Concerns also extend to the other five countries that have become members of the council alongside Eritrea. Human Rights Watch has termed Bahrain, Bangladesh, Cameroon, the Philippines and Somalia as ‘unqualified’ for membership of the council due to their records of human rights abuses. Torture, discrimination against minorities, and limitation of a free press are amongst some of the human rights abuses practiced in these countries.
The conferral of membership upon such countries that fail to stand up to scrutiny on issues of human rights threatens to undermine the Human Rights Council’s ability to hold such countries to account. In June, the United States pulled out of the Human Rights Council due to what UN Ambassador Nikki Haley described as its ‘mockery of human rights’. U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo further described the council as ‘a protector of human rights abusers’. Although boycotting the council altogether jeopardizes its long-standing commitment to protecting international human rights, the latest series of admissions will only serve to escalate the scepticism that is growing in the global community around the council’s membership criteria.
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