Human Rights Advocates Assail U.N. Rights Council Picks

Human rights campaigners are condemning the election of seven countries with controversial rights records to the United Nations Human Rights Council by the General Assembly last week, and calling for reform of the election process.

“The council elections have become a pre-cooked process that strips the meaning from the membership standards established by the General Assembly,” Human Rights Watch Global Advocacy Director Peggy Hicks said in a press release.

A total of 14 countries got electoral nods from the General Assembly during the uncontested, closed-slate May 13 vote. Libya, Angola, Malaysia, Qatar, Uganda, Mauritania and Thailand drew fire from rights advocates. Poland, the Maldives, Spain and Guatemala were among the other successful candidates.

“By electing serial human rights violators, the U.N. violated its own criteria, basic logic and morality. Watching Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi judge others on human rights will turn the U.N. Human Rights Council into a joke,” Hillel Neur, executive director of United Nations Watch, said in a press release.

Dozens of human rights groups including United Nations Watch, Freedom House and Human Rights Without Frontiers, combined forces in a joint appeal before the vote, urging the U.S. and EU to keep Libya off the council, and to reform their own processes for submitting nominees.

The current Council replaced the much-maligned Commission on Human Rights and was designed in the hopes that it would address many of the existing gaps that allowed those accused of human rights abuses to gain legitimacy. Since its 2006 inception, the voting process to select council members, as well as individual candidates, have been challenged by rights advocates. Fierce arguments over the council’s effectiveness demonstrate that hurdles remain, as does a continued need to refine the process.

“This is a council that has not lived up to its potential, and remains flawed, but we have taken the view in this and other circumstances that it is preferable to work from within to shape and reform . . . rather than to stay on the sidelines and reject it,” Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., told reporters after the vote. “We don’t measure the success of the council solely in terms of who is on the body. And yet it is the U.S. view that countries that run for and are elected to the Human Rights Council ought to be those whose records on human rights are strong and cannot be impugned.”

Rice’s statements must be interpreted as aspirational, as it would be difficult to find a country in the world with a perfectly clean human rights record. Nonetheless, she makes a good point, one that many rights campaigners seem to agree with.

Even with the controversy that swirls around the council, few rights advocates can be heard calling for its dissolution. The existence of a process — however flawed — to give international voice to human rights issues is a powerful tool.