At the beginning of the year, 26 of the 47 UN Human Rights Council member states were on record for having violated human rights.
This October, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) will elect new member states under the recent cloud of scrutiny and calls for reform from the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. The diversity of UNHRC membership gives its decisions legitimacy that is irreplaceable in the international human rights field. In order to avoid following in the footsteps of its predecessor — the UN Commission on Human Rights — the UNHRC must take immediate action to increase transparency and hold individual member states accountable when they fail to uphold the council’s principles. The UN as a whole must fight to preserve the UNHRC, as no other entity in the world has the same credibility when condemning human rights abuses.
The former UN Commission on Human Rights became a world-class symbol of UN inefficiency until its end in 2005. The UNHRC was established a year later in order to create an international human rights mechanism that would work effectively. There were three main challenges to the commission that the council wanted to address in its founding.
First, the election system, under which the commission relied on secret deals, became an open system where states competed for a majority of votes to hold one of the 47 member seats.
Second, all 193 UN states must undergo a periodic review of their human rights record in order to abolish the notion of bias between members.
Finally, the council must meet throughout the year, rather than only within a six-week time period that hindered the former commission’s productivity. While these were respectable steps taken in order to create a UNHRC that would be ethical and transparent, there are several key processes that are still at the core of the moral corruption within the council and need to change in order for it to maintain its credibility and influence.
Two Types of Corruption
With only a majority vote needed from the UN General Assembly to gain membership to the council, two types of corruption have become common practice. First, backdoor negotiations circumvent the competitive election process, such as when the United Kingdom proposed an exchange of votes with Saudi Arabia prior to the 2013 election so that both countries could secure seats. Second, regional blocs put forward only the exact number of candidates to fill the number of open seats, therefore, giving the General Assembly no real alternatives.
Earlier this year, the facade of open elections within the UNHRC recently resurfaced after France pulled out of elections, leaving Spain and Australia unopposed for the two open seats in their regional bloc. Australia has been widely condemned in the past year over its abusive and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, but even in the face of clear human rights abuses it will likely claim a seat. These loose rules and secret voting has eliminated the need for debate or the ability to deny human rights abusers such as China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Burundi, Egypt and Venezuela membership seats.
However, when states have been competitive, the UN General Assembly has voted to deny seats to some of the world’s worst human rights abusers. In November 2016, even Russia was defeated due to its bombing of civilians in Aleppo, Syria. Other states have been defeated or chosen to withdraw in the face of likely defeat, including Sudan, Iran, Syria, Azerbaijan and Belarus. Moving forward, countries that have upheld human rights need to lead by example by recruiting others to compete for membership seats, thereby supporting the competitive membership process. These member states must also push to end secret voting and institutionalize public ballots for UNHRC membership, holding states accountable for their votes.
However, even with voting reform, it is unlikely that elected states will always cooperate with the council’s mechanisms. Once elected, members are charged with upholding “the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and “shall fully cooperate with the Council.” Yet the majority of countries currently holding member seats in the UNHRC were found to violate the human rights of their own people. At the beginning of this year, 26 of the 47 member states were on record for having violated human rights, yet most go without any pressure from the UNHRC to address those violations.
In September 2016, the UNHRC adopted a resolution to establish a commission of inquiry into human rights violations in Burundi to determine whether they may be considered international crimes. Although human rights abuses have been confirmed, Burundian officials have so far refused to work with the commission. In early August 2017, the UN Security Council weighed in on the non-implementation of the resolutions, and yet neither the UNHRC nor the General Assembly suspended or denied Burundi’s membership on the council. This is a huge failing on behalf of the UNHRC that undermines the credibility of the entire UN system.
The UN General Assembly must learn from its past success, most notably in February 2011, when the UNHRC held a special session on Libya in the wake of Muammar Qaddafi’s violent crackdown on anti-government protesters. The UNHRC unanimously called on the assembly to suspend Libya’s membership to the council, resulting in an official suspension.
The world is watching how the UNHRC is handling human rights crises, especially in places like Venezuela and Burundi. The UNHRC has the ability to take immediate action, but despite the extreme violence in both countries, the council has not once condemned the countries holding member seats on the UNHRC. Membership for states abusing human rights must be suspended immediately in order to ensure they do not use their membership to obstruct independent scrutiny and accountability, thereby threatening the credibility of the entire council.
The UN Human Rights Council is needed more today than ever before and must undergo internal reforms before it is able to take effective measures around the world. No country has a perfect human rights record, and the UNHRC will never be perfect as it is made up of imperfect actors. But the council should be expected to hold itself to the highest standard possible. It can no longer survive by simply going through the motions of its roles, such as hosting periodic reviews without criticism, but must take a strong stand against powerful countries.
This is up to the council itself, because while it is only one instrument in the international toolbox for advancement and protection of human rights, it remains the only global human rights body with the legitimacy and universality to extend fundamental principles of human dignity to every corner of the world.
*[This article was updated on October 2, 2017.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.