Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Major human rights abusers again elected to UN Human Rights Council

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On Monday the UN General Assembly (UNGA) elected 18 countries to serve on the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) for a period of three years beginning on 1 January 2013. Sadly, as is the usual pattern, at least six of those elected are major human rights abusers who do not meet the criteria the UN itself set for membership of the Council.

Those elected in the secret ballot were: Argentina, Brazil, Côte d'Ivoire, Estonia, Ethiopia, Gabon, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Montenegro, Pakistan, Republic of Korea, Sierra Leone, United Arab Emirates, United States and Venezuela.

The NGO UN Watch examines the human rights records, and tradition of UN voting on human rights concern of all candidates to the Council to track if they meet the criteria set out under UNGA Resolution 60/251. That resolution calls for members of the Council to be in a position to (a) "uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights" and (b) to "fully cooperate with the Council."

"Pakistan, Venezuela, Kazakhstan, Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, and UAE systematically violate the human rights of their own citizens," said UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer, "and they have consistently voted the wrong way on U.N. initiatives to protect the human rights of others." UN Watch also rated Kenya and Sierra Leone as questionable candidates because of their problematic record.

These countries will be joining other human rights violators on the Council whose positions were not up for re-election this year - including China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

HRC membership is based on equitable geographical distribution rather than ‘human rights merit' or ‘freedom ratings', and seats are distributed as follows: 13 seats for African States, 13 seats for Asian States, 8 seats for Latin American and Caribbean States, 7 seats for Western European and other States, and 6 seats for Eastern European States.

The only competition was amongst the ‘Group of Western European and Other States', where the US, Germany and Ireland were elected while Greece and Sweden lost out. The African, Asian, Eastern European and Latin American countries put forward uncontested slates.

"To call the vote in the General Assembly an 'election' gives this process way too much credit," said Peggy Hicks, a Human Rights Watch specialist. "Until there is real competition for seats in the Human Rights Council, its membership standards will remain more rhetoric than reality."

The HRC is composed of 47 members, and according to the UN it is "responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them."

While the aims of the HRC are admirable, in reality the HRC is often highly politicised, and lacks credibility due to its distorted emphasis on repeatedly condemning Israel while ignoring countries with shocking human rights records and electing candidates accused of serious human rights violations. For example, in 2011 Libya was on Human Rights Council prior to the international intervention that brought down Gaddafi's regime.

As human rights scholar Anne Bayefsky notes in National Review Online "fewer than half of Council members now poised to begin applying democratic standards to the rest of the world, are themselves ‘fully free,' according to Freedom House rankings."

Bayefsky also writes that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) was a "big winner" in the HRC election, as it will retain the balance of power on the Council:  "Council membership is divided among five regional groups, and the African and Asian regional groups comprise the majority of members. OIC states will continue to make up the majority on each of the African and Asian regional groups."

On Friday, UN Watch and the Human Rights Foundation invited activists from Venezuela, Pakistan and Kazakhstan to speak about their nations' human rights violations. All three counties were elected to the HRC on Monday. Elias Lopez reported on the conference in the New York Times website:

"It would be immoral to let Venezuela join if it doesn't improve its behavior," said the Venezuelan businessman Eligio Cedeño, who supported opposition politicians before being arrested and charged with circumventing currency controls.

As my colleague Simon Romero reported in 2010, a judge, María Lourdes Afiuni, freed Mr. Cedeño after a U.N. legal panel said his pretrial detention exceeded the limits set by Venezuelan law. The ruling by Judge Afiuni angered President Hugo Chávez, who, while contending on national television that she would have been put before a firing squad in earlier times, sent his secret police to arrest her. She was sentenced to 30 years and is currently under house arrest. Mr. Cedeño fled to the United States.

UN Watch and the Human Rights Foundation also criticized Pakistan for failing 'to meet the minimal standards of a free democracy.' A major point of international scrutiny and condemnation has been Pakistan's blasphemy law.

Sajid Christopher, a Christian activist, denounced the law as an instrument of intimidation against religious minorities. ‘The law requires neither proof of intent nor evidence to be presented after allegations are made, and includes no penalties for false allegations,' said Mr. Christopher, the founder of a group called Human Friends International.

He mentioned the case of Rimsha Masih. My colleagues Declan Walsh and Salman Masood reported in August that Rimshah, a 14-year-old Christian girl living outside Islamabad, was detained for weeks after being accused of burning pages from a religious textbook. Some reports said she had Down syndrome. Her case unleashed a public furor that showed the deep polarization in Pakistani society over the blasphemy law.

Igor Vinyavsky, a newspaper editor from Kazakhstan, denounced harassment and persecution against independent media outlets. In its latest press freedom index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Kazakhstan 154th out of 179 countries. Mr. Vinyavsky was detained in January and held for two months, accused of distributing leaflets calling for an insurrection, a charge he has denied. He was arrested after a raid on his Almaty-based newspaper, Vzglyad, in which the security forces confiscated all reporting equipment, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported. ‘To elect Kazakhstan would be a baffling and shameful act,' Mr. Vinyavsky said through a translator on Friday."

US re-election generates controversy

The Obama Administration's decision to reengage in the HRC has been hotly debated in the US. Under former US President George W. Bush's Administration the US boycotted the HRC, but in 2009 President Barack Obama sought to join the Council, claiming that the US wanted to help make it more effective.

US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice welcomed the US re-election on Monday but noted that the HRC was still flawed:

"The United States is clearly of the view that the Human Rights Council clearly has its flaws ... including its excessive focus on Israel, but it is also a body that is increasingly proving its value and we've been proud to contribute to some of what we think are some of the finer moments of the Human Rights Council it's approach to Syria, it's approach to Sudan, it's approach he situation in Libya with the commission of inquiry."

Similarly, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that "much hard work remains to be done... especially ending the council's disproportionate and biased focus on Israel."

Advocates of US participation in the HRC argue that the situation would be worse without a US presence. Jamil Dakwar, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Human Rights Program told AP:

"Despite an imperfect human rights record, U.S. membership on the council helped turn the tide on key issues, especially in the area of LGBT rights, freedom of speech and association, and women's rights... Now that the Obama administration has won a second term, human rights at home and abroad should be a high priority."

In contrast others such as Anne Bayefsky have slammed US involvement in the Council:

"U.S. membership validates the Council as a serious human rights body - despite the fact that it is the U.N. entity chiefly responsible for the demonization of the state of Israel as allegedly the world's worst human-rights violator. Thirty-eight percent of all the human rights criticism directed at specific countries by the Council in its six-year history has been directed at Israel alone. None has been directed at countries such as Saudi Arabia and China, to name but a few...

The Bush administration eschewed joining the Council after the General Assembly in 2006 refused to institute pre-conditions for membership such as . . . really protecting human rights.

By contrast, team Obama has turned heralding bogus human-rights accomplishments into an art-form. Today, Rice pointed to the Council's ‘approach to Sudan' as one of its ‘finer moments.' In reality, this past September the Council watered down a resolution on mere ‘technical assistance' to Sudan to such an extent that it was welcomed as a ‘victory' by the government of Sudan."

Sharyn Mittelman