Global Policy Forum

UN Human Rights Council Faces the Same Criticism as its Predecessor

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By Lula Ahrens
May 21, 2010



Libya last week was elected to the UN Human Rights Council. Numerous NGOs objected, describing the regime of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi as "one of the world's most brutal and longest-running tyrannies". Ironically, the original UN human rights body - the Human Rights Commission - was disbanded following years of criticism, the final straw for many being the appointment of Libya to the chairmanship of the body. Increasingly, the new Council is also coming under fire, with the membership of countries with questionable human rights records provoking widespread debate. "If you don't criticize me, I won't criticize you either. That's the current trend," as one observer puts it.

Libya and 13 other nations ran unopposed for 14 of the council's seats. In the ballot process regional groups for the first time each put forward the same number of candidates as the number of seats available to them. This means they were elected without competition. NGOs called the process undemocratic, pointing out that "elections without competition don't make sense."

The council is made up of 47 member nations, each elected for three years. The seats are apportioned by region and every year, a third of the body's seats are up for renewal. The four seats available to African this vote went to Libya, Angola, Mauritania and Uganda. In the Asian group, Iran withdrew from contention. That left Malaysia, the Maldives, Qatar and Thailand contenders for the four available spots. The other seats were taken by Ecuador, Guatemala, Spain, Switzerland, Moldova and Poland.


Both International Rights Professor Menno Kamminga and political scientist Dick Leurdijk say the UN Human Rights Council is largely "ineffective," which they blame primarily on the increased number of non-Western members with bad human rights records such as China, Cuba and Jordan.

"Without paying too much tribute to the Western countries - their human rights record isn't flawless either - the new make-up hasn't contributed to the council's human rights record. The trend is towards members saying 'If you don't criticize me, I won't criticize you either," Kamminga told Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

"It's a problem that cannot be solved, Leurdijk says, "because of the nature of the UN". "The UN system entails that every country can become a member."

Competitive elections

Dokhi Fassihian is the executive director of the Democracy Coalition Project. She recognizes the lack of criticism among member states. But on the other hand, she asks, "What kind of human rights body would we have if it was not representative and one group of states sat in judgment of the other?"

"The hesitancy of states to criticize others is not regionally determined," Fassihian told Radio Netherlands. "It is more politically determined. As such, the role and strength of the UN's human rights experts become increasingly important. And Western countries have human rights problems just as non-Western members do."

Fassihian points out that the Western Group of the UN abandoned competitive elections in 2009 and 2010, "which weakens its own position and the Council as a whole." She says the key to a stronger UN Human Rights Council is "competitive elections in which the UN General Assembly can select states from each region that have demonstrated progress and commitment on human rights".

"We have made progress on this front, but more commitment is necessary, especially from the potentially most influential established democracies," Fassihian said.

Powerful countries

Another problem, according to many, is that powerful nations are hardly ever denied a seat. Russian President Medvedev last month told the Danish prime minister that his country's human rights "are our problems and should only be solved by us." And yet, despite Russia's inconsequent behavior and bad human rights record, its membership of the UN Human Rights Council was prolonged in 2009.

According to Kamminga, Russia is a council member because it's "not done" to deny a member of the UN Security Council HR Council membership. Fassihian admits it is "certainly harder" to deny a big power a seat on an intergovernmental body and that no Security Council members have yet been denied a seat. But, she said, "it is not impossible".


"The UN Human Rights Council has a uniquely reformed voting process that is different from other UN bodies. It instructs that members must uphold the highest standards of human rights and cooperate with it. When electing members, they are instructed to take their contribution to human rights into account," said Fassihian.

"China has come in at the bottom of its region several times in terms of votes due to its poor human rights record. NGOs opposed the candidacies of Russia and China in 2009 and used the election process to highlight their problematic records".

Fassihian told Radio Netherlands that "several states since 2006 have run and been defeated". "Some due to intense opposition and campaigning by human rights groups such as Belarus in 2007, Sri Lanka in 2008, Azerbaijan in 2009, and this year, Iran, which withdrew due to mounting global opposition over severe human rights abuses at home."

Universal Periodic Review

The relatively young UN Human Rights Council succeeded the UN Human Rights Commission on 15 March 2006 with the intention of creating a more effective UN instrument. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a review of the human rights record of each of the council's members every four years, was introduced that same day.

According to Kamminga and Leurdijk, the transformation from commission to council has not improved the council's effectiveness. Kamminga: "Koffi Annan wanted human rights to have a more prominent place on the UN agenda. But the UN Human Rights Council is subject to the same criticism as the commission. It hasn't lived up to expectations."

Leurdijk is slightly more optimistic. "The UPR is a very interesting method which forces countries to be at least a little bit accountable to the outside world about their human rights situation. Of course it won't take away all the current criticism."

Repressive societies

Fassihian believes the UPR is "the most innovative and promising achievement of the new Human Rights Council" so far. "For the first time every single UN member state including big powers like the US, EU, Russia or China must be reviewed publicly, openly, with participation by civil society and human rights experts, by their peers."

She does, however, note that not all member states will benefit from the UPR. "Those that will are those with active civil societies, elements of democratic governance, and political will by governments to engage constructively. Highly repressive, isolated, and closed societies have not made as much of an effort."

Leurdijk, despite his careful optimism, says a truly "groundbreaking" solution can only be found outside the UN framework. "There are voices, primarily in the US, saying: 'Let's set up an entirely new international human rights organisation, which reserves its membership exclusively for democratic countries.'"



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