Issue 383: The Real Rules of the U.N. Human Rights Council

This article by award-winning investigative journalist Claudia Rosett is based on UN Watch materials.

The Real Rules of the U.N. Human Rights Council

High-profile genocide is a no-no — but dictatorship, slavery, and anti-Semitism are A-OK.

By Claudia Rosett
September 11, 2012

The good news is that genocide-tainted Sudan has withdrawn its bid to join the United Nations Human Rights Council, a move that suggests there may actually be some outer limits to the travesties of the U.N.’s leading human-rights body.

Sudan’s withdrawal appears to be due largely to a vigorous non-governmental campaign led by a Geneva-based monitoring group, UN Watch. With the help of actress Mia Farrow, UN Watch finally pressured Western officials into persuading Sudan to drop a candidacy that democracies such as the U.S. should have tried much harder to forestall in the first place.

But even without Sudan preparing to climb aboard, the Geneva-based Human Rights Council remains a grim joke.

As UN Watch reminds us, “The hypocrisy-ridden council already includes such systematic abusers of human rights as China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia,” as well as slavery-infested Mauritania.

Among that batch of human-rights abusers, most are due to rotate off the council next year. Unfortunately, they have already made their mark, in the shape of the current “reformed” council, reconstituted in 2006 out of the irredeemably rotten old Commission on Human Rights. Under council rules that allow no more than two consecutive three-year terms, China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia must give up their seats for a year before they qualify to return.

But fresh abusers are already running, unopposed, to replace them. Two of the most high-profile are Venezuela (Iran’s chief sidekick in the Western Hemisphere) and Pakistan (a frequent shill at the U.N. for the anti-Semitic and despot-driven Organization of Islamic Cooperation). UN Watch has mounted campaigns against the candidacies of Venezuela and Pakistan; it notes that “the U.S. and other democracies, however, have yet to speak out.”

Lower-profile but also outrageous are the candidacies of Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire, the United Arab Emirates, and Gabon — all rated by Washington-based Freedom House as “Not Free.” If they win, they will join the other “Not Free” members of the Human Rights Council, such as current members Qatar, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Right now, it looks likely that all these human-rights violators will win. Elections to the Human Rights Council will take place on November 12 in New York, by secret ballot of the U.N.’s General Assembly — a body dominated by governments of unfree states. Blocks of seats on the 47-member Human Rights Council are allocated by geographic region; by the time some of these regions declare their candidates, the backroom deals are usually done, and the fix is in. Currently, the slates from the Latin American, African, and Asia-Pacific regions are all offering no more candidates than there are available seats. In other words, the worst candidates face no competition.

All of which brings us to the question: What, exactly, are the real qualifications for membership on the U.N. Human Rights Council?

On paper, the terms are neatly spelled out. In a resolution dated April 3, 2006, the General Assembly stipulated that even though seats on the Human Rights Council are open to all U.N. member states, the countries electing representatives should take into account, along with countries’ pledges of good behavior, “the contribution of the candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights.” Further, the General Assembly may, by a two-thirds majority of those present and voting, suspend any member of the council “that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.”

That’s great, but it translates into almost nothing in practice. Cuba, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and Mauritania have all sat comfortably and entirely unsuspended on the council for years. Venezuela and Pakistan look like shoo-ins in the upcoming election. Evidently, there is no particular bar at the Human Rights Council to such repressive policies, in various combinations, as authoritarian or downright despotic rule, gags on free speech, religious intolerance, torture, jailing of democratic dissidents, or de facto tolerance of slavery.

Let us also recall that Libya, while still under the boot of the late Moammar Qaddafi, was swept into a seat on the Human Rights Council in 2010 with 155 votes — a landslide endorsement representing more than three-quarters of the members of the General Assembly.

It was only when Libya’s people rose up against Qaddafi, in early 2011, and he threatened to kill them like rats, that the General Assembly voted to suspend Libya’s membership on the Human Rights Council.

From this, can we divine the unwritten code of etiquette that determines how the U.N. decides which governments qualify for a seat on the Human Rights Council, and which do not?

Sort of. In the cases of Sudan and Libya, the apparent deal breaker was flagrant genocide, or the threat thereof. Sudan’s regime has actually committed genocide; Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir is under indictment from the U.N.-engendered International Criminal Court. That didn’t stop the African Group from entering Sudan on its slate of candidates, but it seems it did ultimately render Sudan vulnerable to U.S. pressure to withdraw — once a public campaign brought enough pressure to bear on the U.S. administration. And when Qaddafi in 2011 produced his plausible threat of genocide, even the U.N. General Assembly finally decided his government wasn’t fit for full membership rights on the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Even in matters such as mass murder, or threats thereof, the U.N. is slow to demonstrate moral clarity. Syria expressed an interest this year in running for the Human Rights Council. The U.S. and European Union objected, and the matter has been deferred, perhaps to next year, while Syria’s rulers, longtime tyrants, use heavy weapons against their own people and the Syrian death toll tops 20,000.

And then there’s the Human Rights Council’s fixation on savaging the democratic nation of Israel. The council keeps Israel as a standing item on its agenda, targeting it for more criticism and condemnation than any other state. That entails not only an ugly anti-Semitism, but also — to put it generously — a cavalier view of Iran’s threats to wipe Israel off the map. Iran is not a member of the council, but the council serves as one of the U.N.’s most virulent clubhouses for fostering antagonisms that may yet lead to mass murder.

So, what are the real clubhouse rules for joining the U.N. Human Rights Council? We can by now reasonably infer that, at least in some cases, the U.N. tends to draw the line at high-profile genocide. But that’s about it. Dictatorship, repression, bigotry, slavery — no problem. If the council can’t be reformed, then maybe in the interest of better informing the public, the U.N. could at least rewrite the official rules to reflect the monstrous realities.

— Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.


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