The UN Human Rights Council’s lousy election

THOSE WHO argue that the UN’s Human Rights Council is a force for good were greatly disappointed last week by the election to the council of Bahrain, Cameroon, Eritrea and the Philippines; those who praised President Donald Trump’s decision in June to pull the United States out of the council have taken succour from the elevation of four known human-rights abusers. America’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, described the council as “a protector of human-rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias”, especially against Israel. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based monitor, expressed outrage at the election, criticising in particular Eritrea and the Philippines. Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are already serving on the council.

The body consists of 47 members, about a third of them elected every year for a term of three years, renewable by election for one extra term, with five regional blocs each proposing members for election. This time around, human-rights lobbies were further angered by the fact that every new member was voted in on a “clean slate”, meaning that no candidate faced competition. All 193 members of the UN’s General Assembly are entitled to vote. Regional and religious solidarity ensured that Cameroon and Somalia got more votes (176 and 170 respectively) than Denmark (167). The Philippines and Bahrain each got 165, while Eritrea was blessed by 160. Votes are cast in secret.

Defenders of the council insist that on balance it still does good, with its three sessions a year putting a spotlight on human-rights abuses around the world. Its last two sessions this year have been better than usual, says Marc Limon, director of the Universal Rights Group, a think-tank in Geneva, where the council is based. For example, the council has issued a damning special report on Myanmar, castigating that country for its mistreatment of the Rohingya minority. Unusually naming a number of generals as chief perpetrators, it has drawn up a detailed catalogue of atrocities that may in due course be used as evidence either in the International Criminal Court in The Hague or in Bangladesh, which is a signatory to the international court, or in a hybrid court of the type previously set up after the Balkan wars and for Rwanda and Sierra Leone.

A second hopeful advance, says Mr Limon, was the council’s resolution, proposed mainly by Latin American members, condemning Venezuela and demanding an investigation into abuses there. This would probably not have happened, he reckons, had the United States still been a council member, as the Latin Americans are still loth to be seen to kowtow to the administration in Washington, DC, which had long been pressing in vain for such a resolution.

Some proponents of the council think that the UN’s new High Commisioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile, who took over last month from Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan, may be more effective than her predecessor because she is said to be more adept at quiet diplomacy; the prince tended to use the bully pulpit to name and shame malign countries but, in the eyes of António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, failed on the whole to persuade them to improve their behaviour. The high commissioner supervises the council, which is answerable to the UN General Assembly, but cannot order it around.

In any event, the council’s reputation and effectiveness would be enhanced if the General Assembly enacted a bunch of changes. One would be to ensure that more small countries, which tend to be more democratic than many of the big ones, propose themselves for membership. Another is that human-rights abusers could be kicked off the council by a simple majority of votes in the UN, rather than by the current minimum of two-thirds; Libya (under Muammar Qaddafi) is the only country that has ever been evicted. The council might also improve if it published detailed accounts of each candidate’s human-rights record before the vote. And the vote should be public, so that governments can be asked why, for example, they consider Eritrea or Saudi Arabia to be worthy of a council seat. 

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