Russia And China’s Election To The U.N. Human Rights Council: What It Means For International Human Rights

On October 13th, Russia, China, and Cuba were among those elected for a three-year term on the United Nations Human Rights Council (U.N.H.R.C.). These countries, with human rights abuse on their own records, are unfit to act as members of the council. The U.N.’s decision to elect them to the U.N.H.R.C. undermines the body’s credibility and raises questions about the court’s current entry system.

Even allowing China, Russia, Cuba, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia to serve on the U.N.H.R.C. is like “making a gang of arsonists into the fire brigade,” says Hillel Neuer, Executive Director of U.N. Watch. Letting these countries run the council is unthinkable.

Each state that sits on the council is charged with promoting and protecting human rights, in accordance with the resolution which founded the council, Resolution 60/251. However, Russia has been recently involved with war crimes in Syria, and China has arbitrarily detained more than 1,000,000 ethnic Uyghurs in internment camps. A report evaluating this year’s U.N.H.R.C. candidates judged 6 out of the 16 running candidates to be unqualified to sit on the court.

The 47-seat council, based in Geneva, Switzerland, replaced the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 2006 after the latter was discredited by some members’ poor rights records. Unfortunately, the new council soon faced similar criticism; critics claimed that rights abusers sought out seats at the council to protect themselves and their allies. Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian dissident who was twice poisoned, says this year’s election results were hardly surprising. After all, Kara-Murza pointed out, regimes in Libya, Sudan, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had been elected to the council in the past.

Out of the five regional groups which compose the council, the only contested region was Asia. The other four ran on “closed slates,” where the number of candidates exactly matched the number of available seats. According to the International Service for Human Rights (I.S.H.R.), human rights organizations have criticized closed-slate elections for years – the process essentially guarantees a candidate’s victory, regardless of their human rights record. According to I.S.H.R., the lack of competition not only opens the Council’s door to “abuser” states, but goes against both the spirit and letter of the Council’s establishing resolution.

“Serial rights abusers should not be rewarded with seats on the Human Rights Council,” Louis Charbonneau said. Charbonneau is the U.N. director at Human Rights Watch. “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. … Uncompetitive U.N. votes like this … make a mockery of the word ‘election.’”

In 2011, a review of the Human Rights Council made proposals to prohibit closed slates and to establish a public “pledge review” mechanism to improve councilmembers’ accountability. Unfortunately, these proposals were not acted upon. The report evaluating this year’s U.N.H.R.C. candidates emphasized that U.N. member states have the legal right—and moral obligation—to refuse to vote for unqualified candidates, even if those candidates are running on closed slates.

“Regional slates should be competitive, so states have a choice,” Charbonneau said. “When there’s no choice, countries should refuse to vote for unfit candidates.”

In 2018, just after America’s boycott of the U.N.H.R.C., Neuer expressed disappointment that E.U. countries were not doing more to support the council. “By turning a blind eye as human rights violators easily join and subvert the council, leading democracies will be complicit in the world body’s moral decline,” he stated. Unfortunately, human rights violators are still being elected to the council two years later.

But Charbonneau believes in the Human Rights Council nonetheless. “Fortunately, even the most abusive governments have been unable to stop the council from shining a light on rights violations around the world… That’s grounds for hope.”

Rafaela Alford
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