UN Human Rights Council Elections Betray Victims

John Metzlerby John J. Metzler
Weirs Times Contributing Writer

UNITED NATIONS—Elections and selections among candidates to the UN Human Rights Council has again highlighted a glaring flaw in a system where politically authoritarian regimes such as Ecuador, Ethiopia, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela have won seats, and with it, an unjustified political legitimacy. In a joint briefing on the elections, representatives of both the Geneva-based UN Watch and New York’s Human Rights Foundation said some such candidates were “unqualified” to sit on the world organization’s 47 member Council.

Hillel Neuer of UN Watch stated emphatically, “The election of even more rights abusing regimes on a body that already counts China, Russia, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia as members—marks another severe blow to the credibility and efficacy of a body that is supposed to improve on its discredited predecessor, by taking action to protect victims. It’s a black day for human rights.”

According to Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, “There’s a moral relativism in the Human Rights Council,” nonetheless he stressed poignantly, “fundamental human rights are not up to negotiation.” He chided the Council which over the years “tragically refused to act on key issues,” such as not once criticizing Mainland China where millions still languish as political prisoners.

As in many such UN organs, the Geneva-based Council’s members are regionally based. Using a methodology where human rights and press freedom ratings come from Freedom House, the Economist, and Reporters Without Borders, let’s then analyze the results.

Africa There was a closed slate, pick five out of five. Burundi and Ethiopia gained seats as did Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya and Togo. Ethiopia is clearly listed as “not free” and an “authoritarian regime.” As one would imagine there are “restrictions on freedom of expression and the press, arbitrary arrests and detention, arbitrary killings and torture, and forced child labor.” Thus UN Watch and HRF label Ethiopia as “unqualified” to sit on the Council for the three year term.

Asian Group The seats were contested with seven candidates for five seats. First some good news; South Korea won a seat as did the Philippines. But in a stunning development Pakistan, who was tipped to win the seat, fell short in the General Assembly ballot. Sadly in Pakistan entrenched discrimination against religious minorities is part of the political landscape, and thus the government in Islamabad was not qualified to sit on the Council.

Other Asian countries who won seats were Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and United Arab Emirates.

Eastern Europe Two out of two seats went to Georgia and Slovenia. Though Georgia has a mixed record on some issues, let’s not forget parts of the country has been dismembered by neighboring Russia. Slovenia, is one of the most successful states to have broken from former Yugoslavia.

Latin American and Caribbean Group Here there were four countries contesting three places.

It’s richly ironic that Venezuela, a country which continues to crack down on political dissent, a free press, and allows arbitrary arrest and detentions, won a seat. Diego Arria, a distinguished diplomat who once served as Venezuela’s UN delegate told the audience, “A nation of free people that I was privileged and proud to represent has transformed into a real Gang that under the military, political and police control of the Cuban regime, rules my country.”

He added that Venezuela had become a “dictatorial and militarized” state. Although the current president remains in the shadow of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s former socialist leader, Ambassador Arria told this writer, that Nicolas Maduro, “is far more dangerous than Chavez.”

Given Venezuela’s slide deeper into authoritarianism with the approach of national elections, Ambassador Arria predicted, “Maduro’s future is in the Hague,” a clear allusion to the international criminal tribunal facing the president.

Among other Latin American countries Ecuador and Panama won seats.

Western Europe Good news here. In selection for three out of three places, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland won seats. Their role on the Council is richly merited.

“It’s an outrage that the UN entrusted the world’s human rights protection to some of the world’s worst dictatorships and authoritarian regimes,” stated HRF’s Halvorssen.

So the very high priests of global human rights have in fact become some of the most politically tainted and authoritarian regimes who will proudly sit judgement. The absence of competition in some regional categories moreover illustrates the prevailing power of backroom deals, hardly unusual at the UN . Yet raising regimes such as Venezuela and Ethiopia to the Human Rights Council opens a Kafkaesque interpretation both to its future proceedings as well as the Council’s credibility.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China.