UNGA Resolution 60/251 created the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), “responsible for promoting universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.” One would not imagine the members of the UNHRC included countries that systematically violate the same human rights. As part of its mechanisms, the UNHRC and its members review the human rights records of UN member states in its “Universal Periodic Review” and can work with the UN Special Procedures to examine, advise or report on thematic issues and human rights situations in specific countries. The actions of the UN Human Rights Council have been threatened by the election of their recent members. In October 2020, the UN Human Rights Council elected its new members to the 47 member council, who began serving on January 1st 2021. The new members will serve in the UN body for three years. Ironically, the Human Rights Council will include some of the worst global human rights violators, including Eritrea, the Philippines, Somalia and Bahrain.
There has been an outcry from human rights defenders, activists and organisations criticising the human rights council for including countries with poor human rights record to the organisation that is promoting and (supposedly) protecting human rights worldwide. Although the indicator is far from conclusive, looking at the Freedom House rankings, the elected countries appear to not hold the free standard that should be expected. For example Eritrea has a Freedom House ranking of 2 (not free), similar to Somalia (7, not free) and Bahrain (12, not free). Besides their Freedom House ranking, the countries are accused of severe human rights violations including, but not limited to, the persecutions, sexual abuse and other violations in Eritrea and the extrajudicial killings under the oppressive Duterte regime.
The Human Rights Council has enough criticism, based around its selectivity of cases and its access to some developing countries, without suffering from this extreme blow to its legitimacy and credibility. As Irwin Cotler, head of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, has stated: “Regrettably, when the UN itself ends up electing human rights violators to the human rights council, it indulges the very culture of impunity it is supposed to combat” (Tisdall 2018). For example, both Cuba and China have been accused of using their seat in the Council to to prevent scrutiny of themselves and their allies. Rosa María Payá claims the UNHRC seat given to Cuba ensures the accusations against themselves and “criminal friends in Venezuela, China, Russia and Belarus do not prosper” (Ng, 2020).
Some scholars argue that the UNHRC’s inclusion of countries like Eritrea and Philippines is to assimilate and shame them into improving their human rights record. Abusers will “be directly in the spotlight” and “their position as the supposed guardian of human rights makes it far more difficult for them to hide their own human rights abuses” (España, 2020). Yet, the countries are not likely to approve or lead a periodic review or special session against its own government.
Another argument made for the inclusion of all countries is the representation and symbolism of multilateralism – the UN cannot decide which countries stand for election, and neither should it. However, the effect of the multilateralist and democratic thought is somewhat subdued if the elected countries, then vetoe the decisions of the body because they want to avoid prying eyes into their human rights violations.
The problem therefore, lies in the electoral system of the UNHRC. Out of the 5 regional groups, the Asia-Pacific regional group was the only one with a competitive bid, with 5 countries running for four seats. Not only does the lack of interest portray an increasing dismissal of the UN body, it also means that all countries that apply, including countries with a poor human rights record, become members and can succeed in their ulterior motive. The elections also often feature “backroom deals, closed slates and secret ballots” that significantly hinder the bodies’ ability to function to its full capacity. If the elections were more competitive, the countries with poor human rights records might not be given the opportunity to become members. One example is the 2020 election with Saudi Arabia – the only competitive election of the year. According to human rights organisations, Saudi Arabia’s defeat is attributed to its gross (public) human rights violations, such as the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and women’s rights abuses. Due to the competitive nature of this regional group, the poor human rights record of Saudi Arabia caused its loss of a potential membership. According to Charbonneau, if there was more competitive, other countries might have lost as well, making way to more appropriate candidates.
The symbolism and work of the UN Human Rights Council is impressive, yet its functionality and structure severely limits its credibility and legitimacy as it allows the undermining of the purpose by gross human rights violators. The electoral system, alongside the pursue of control and limitation of the body, stops the Council from following its aim of “promoting universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all” (UNGA Resolution 60/251).
BBC, 2018. UN criticised over new human rights council members. [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-45840980> [Accessed 12 September 2021].
Chilton, A. and Golan-Vilella, R., 2016. Did the Creation of the United Nations Human Rights Council Produce a Better “Jury”?. Harvard International Law Journal, Vol. 58 Online Journal, pp.7-15.
España, A., 2020. UN Human Rights Council Elections Reveal The Importance Of A Competitive System. [Blog] Human Rights Pulse, Available at: <https://www.humanrightspulse.com/mastercontentblog/un-human-rights-council-elections-reveal-the-importance-of-a-competitive-system> [Accessed 12 September 2021].
Khahn, T., 2020. FDD | UN Elects Worst Violators to Human Rights Council. [online] FDD. Available at: <https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2020/10/15/worst-violators-elected-to-unhrc/> [Accessed 12 September 2021].
Ng, K., 2020. World’s worst abusers to be elected to UN human rights council. Independent, [online] Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/un-human-rights-council-election-activists-eu-states-b1013002.html> [Accessed 12 September 2021].
Piccone, T., 2021. UN Human Rights Council: As the US returns it will have to deal with China and its friends. [Blog] Brookings, Available at: <https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/02/25/un-human-rights-council-as-the-us-returns-it-will-have-to-deal-with-china-and-its-friends/> [Accessed 12 September 2021].
Swart, M., 2020. Saudi Arabia fails in bid for seat on UN Human Rights Council. Aljazeera, [online] Available at: <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/13/human-rights-council-election> [Accessed 12 September 2021].
Tisdall, S., 2018. Why are world’s worst violators joining UN human rights council?. The Guardian, [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/oct/11/eritrea-joining-human-rights-council-membership-undermine-work-hrc> [Accessed 12 September 2021].
UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council : resolution / adopted by the General Assembly, 3 April 2006, A/RES/60/251, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/4537814814.html %5Baccessed 12 September 2021]
UN Watch, Human Rights Foundation and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, 2020. EVALUATION OF UNHRC CANDIDATES FOR 2021-2023. [online] Available at: <https://unwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Evaluation-of-2021-23-UNHRC-Candidates-1.pdf> [Accessed 12 September 2021].
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the values of The Liberty Club