Critics slam UN Human Rights Council’s election of ‘unqualified’ new members

18 countries voted onto council including Bahrain, Cameroon, the Philippines, Somalia, Bangladesh and Eritrea, which have poor human rights records

A member of Somalia's security services patrols the scene of a suicide car bomb blast on August 30, 2016 in Mogadishu, Somalia. (AFP/Mohamed Abdiwahab)
A member of Somalia's security services patrols the scene of a suicide car bomb blast on August 30, 2016 in Mogadishu, Somalia. (AFP/Mohamed Abdiwahab)

Critics on Friday slammed the United Nations Human Rights Council for electing ten new members that are either “unqualified” or have “questionable” human rights records.

Around a third of the seats on the 47-member council, based in Geneva, were up for grabs for slots lasting from 2019-2022. A 97-vote majority from the 193 nations that make up the UN’s General Assembly is needed for the green light.

For the first time since the council was created in 2006, each voting region agreed in advance on 18 candidates to be in the running for 18 seats — removing any competition.

New members Bahrain, Cameroon, the Philippines, Somalia, Bangladesh and Eritrea were elected with between 160 and 178 votes — and immediately drew criticism from rights groups dismissing them as “unqualified” due to their human rights records.

The aforementioned countries “systematically violate the human rights of their own citizens, and consistently frustrate UN initiatives to protect the human rights of others,” lamented Hillel Neuer, the head of UN Watch, a Geneva-based nonprofit.

Hillel Neuer of UN Watch (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash 90)
Hillel Neuer (Michal Fattal/Flash 90)

“Electing a regime like Eritrea as a UN judge on human rights would be like making a pyromaniac into the town fire chief,” he said.

New York-based Human Rights Watch also slammed the vote.

“By putting forward serious rights violators and presenting only as many candidates as seats available, the regional groups risk undermining the council’s credibility and effectiveness,” it said.

The Human Rights Council has 47 member states, which are elected by the UN General Assembly through direct and secret ballot. “The General Assembly takes into account the candidate States’ contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments in this regard,” the council states on its website.

Earlier this week UN Watch, the Human Rights Foundation and the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights published a report detailing alleged human rights abuses by the countries elected on Friday.

In June, the US announced its withdrawal from the Human Rights Council, branding the global body a “cesspool of political bias,” particularly over its treatment of Israel.

The council’s controversial Agenda Item 7, a permanent fixture on the schedule,  is exclusively devoted to discussing alleged Israeli rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Illustrative: The UN Human Rights Council during an interactive dialogue with the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip on June 29, 2015 in Geneva, Switzerland. (UN photo)

Israel is the only country with a dedicated council item. Item 7 on “Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories” has been part of the council’s regular business 2007, almost as long as it has existed. The council was established in 2006.

Washington, some European countries and Australia have sided with Israel in condemning Item 7 as prejudiced, noting that countries with worse rights records in recent years, like Syria, are spared such intense scrutiny.

The new members of the council were elected for a period of three years. Current members include several countries with questionable human rights records, including, Iraq, Cuba, China, Qatar, Angola, Burundi, Pakistan, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Israel has never been a member of the council.

Irwin Cotler speaking to a Knesset Committee in March. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler speaking to a Knesset committee in Jerusalem on March 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Regrettably, when the UN itself ends up electing human rights violators to the Human Rights Council, it indulges the very of culture of impunity it is supposed to combat,” former Canadian justice minister and head of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights Irwin Cotler said. “The world’s democracies must join in the preservation and protection of the Council’s mandate, and not end up accomplices to its breach.”

The report also criticized new council members Burkina Faso, Fiji, India and Togo for their “questionable” credentials, citing “problematic human rights and UN voting records that should be improved.”

In light of the uncontested election of serial human rights abusers, UN Watch suggested reforming the council’s election system.

“If our own democracies continue to disregard the election criteria by voting for abusers, then we should just scrap elections altogether, and make every country a member, as is the case in the General Assembly’s human rights committee,” Neuer said. “Non-democracies could no longer hold up their UNHRC election as a shield of international legitimacy to cover up the abuses of their regime.”

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