October 15, 2020 | Policy Brief

UN Elects Worst Violators to Human Rights Council

October 15, 2020 | Policy Brief

UN Elects Worst Violators to Human Rights Council

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on Tuesday overwhelmingly elected China, Cuba, Gabon, Pakistan, Russia, and Uzbekistan as members of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The election underscores the UN’s long record of entrusting the oversight of human rights to the very regimes who violate them most flagrantly.

The UNGA also elected nine other countries to the UNHRC: Bolivia, Côte d’Ivoire, France, Malawi, Mexico, Nepal, Senegal, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom. The new members will serve for three years – beginning on January 1, 2021 – on the 47-member Council, which receives new members annually based on a majority ballot of the 193-member UNGA.

Ballots for the rotating membership are secret, though individual countries may opt to publicize their decisions. The United States had no compunction about disclosing its choice. Calling the UNHRC a “deeply corrupted body,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft tweeted that the Council has made “a mockery of its intended purpose and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that the elections validated the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the body in 2018.

Notably, Saudi Arabia failed in its bid to join the Council, receiving only 90 votes – seven votes short of a UNGA majority.

UNGA Resolution 60/251, which created the UNHRC in 2006, articulates the criteria for UNHRC membership. When electing members of the UNHRC, the resolution states, UNGA members “shall take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights.” The resolution further asserts that UNHRC members “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”

As the nonprofit groups UN Watch, the Human Rights Foundation, and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights noted in a joint report released earlier this month, China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, and Uzbekistan have exceptionally poor human rights records, denying their peoples basic freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These five countries have also opposed or abstained on UNGA resolutions criticizing human rights abusers such as Iran and Syria.

Freedom House ranks each of these five countries, as well as Gabon, as “not free.” Reporters Without Borders, in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, ranks China 177th out of 180 countries, Cuba 171st, Pakistan 145th, Russia 149th, Uzbekistan 156th, and Gabon 121st.

China may constitute the most egregious human rights abuser among the five. In addition to running a police state, Beijing has sent more than a million Uighur Muslims to concentration camps, where they face indoctrination, torture, and forced sterilization.

The UNHRC vote also comes nearly two months after Russia allegedly poisoned leading dissident Alexei Navalny with a chemical agent.

In this context, UNHRC membership effectively serves as a shield to deflect criticism of members’ human rights violations. From the Council’s founding in 2006 through the end of 2019, it did not pass a single resolution that condemned China, Cuba, Gabon, Pakistan, Russia, or Uzbekistan. All except Uzbekistan have previously held seats on the Council.

One key reform can help mitigate this problem: The ballot for UNHRC membership should no longer be secret. By forcing each UNGA member to publicize its vote, such a reform can help dissuade countries from casting votes that may embarrass them, thereby introducing much needed accountability in the UN human rights infrastructure.

Tzvi Kahn is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). For more analysis from Tzvi and FDD, please subscribe HERE. Follow Tzvi on Twitter @TzviKahn. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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