The annual din about which countries are fit to occupy seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council will intensify ahead of the General Assembly election for the 18 seats that change hands at the end of 2012. Sudan and Ethiopia are two possibilities for replacements on the 47-seat body, and Syria has been mentioned – scathingly – for a 2014 seat. In an election year, the din from the United States, which many regard as having a questionable human rights record, could be deafening. Washington’s uneasy relations with the council will be recalled along the way.
UN General Assembly resolution 60/251 requires that “members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” It has had no success with a number of countries, and the loudest complaints against the body center on the fact that many of the perceived violators are represented on the council.
The issue of fitness to serve on the council on the basis of a country’s human rights record manifests the innate flaw in the raison d’être for the body: there is no moral clarity on what constitutes a violation, and each country has its own view.
The United States represents a case in point, particularly ahead of the November election, when some Republican campaigns are likely to include calls to defund the United Nations because it elects countries such as Cuba and Iran to the HR council.
On 15 Mar 2006, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution replacing the Commission on Human Rights with the new HR Council, with 171 countries voting for it. The United States, under the George W. Bush Administration, was one of four countries to vote against the resolution. The Administration maintained that the Council lacked mechanisms for maintaining credible membership, and expressed concern with the Council’s focus on Israel and lack of attention to other human rights situations. In April 2008, it announced that the United States would withhold a portion of its contributions to the 2008 UN regular budget, equivalent to the US share of the Human Rights Council budget. The US administration of Barack Obama views the council participation as in US interests, and was elected a member in Jun 2009.
Joel Brinkley, writing in the Baltimore Sun on Jul 15, describes the UN HR Council as “irredeemable.” That’s the problem with using the United Nations to address human-rights problems, he says. “Every single state in the world, even the most reprehensible, is an equal member . . . [and] “every nation that ignores those ideals still has an equal vote in the UN General Assembly.”
But some other countries, Europe, in particular, see US human rights to be extremely questionable because of the renditions and admitted torture of political prisoners, and because of the US death penalty in several states. Amnesty International notes that two-thirds of countries had abolished the death penalty by 2010, and that the overwhelming majority of all known executions in that year took place in five countries – China, Iran, North Korea, Yemen and the United states. All five sit, or have sat, on the HR Council.
Some one-third of the present members of the HR Council have human rights records that have been called into question by organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Membership is based on equitable geographical distribution. African States are allotted 13 seats; Asian states, 13; Latin American and Caribbean States, 8; Western European and other States, 7; and Eastern European states, 6. Members serve for three years and are not eligible for immediate re-election after serving two consecutive terms.
Some criticism of the council rests on the way the regions select representatives: behind closed doors, and presenting a slate that offers no alternatives from the region when the Assembly votes. The African group is presenting a slate of only five candidates: Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Sierra Leone, and Sudan.