Saudis fail to win a seat; US quit the council in 2018

Erdan slams UN Human Rights Council after Russia, China, Pakistan, Cuba elected

Israel’s UN envoy avoids identifying newest members by name, instead decrying ‘anti-Semitic’ body’s ‘obsessive’ focus on Israel and urging democracies elected to resign

Israeli UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan in his New York office on October 13, 2020. (Israeli Mission to the UN)
Israeli UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan in his New York office on October 13, 2020. (Israeli Mission to the UN)

NEW YORK — Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan assailed the international body on Tuesday after its members elected several countries widely criticized for their human rights records to the premier UN body tasked with defending human rights.

China, Russia, Cuba and Pakistan were among the 15 countries that won seats in a secret-ballot vote carried out by the 193-member General Assembly. Saudi Arabia failed to make the cut.

“Today’s Human Rights Council elections prove once again that this council has nothing to do with protecting human rights and everything to do with violating them,” Erdan said in a video statement.

Last month, the UN envoy penned an op-ed in the Israel Hayom daily in which he claimed the international body was at risk of “losing its right to exist” over its unfair treatment of the Jewish state and predicted it could be defunct by the end of the century.

Erdan’s Tuesday censure did not identify any of the newest members of the Human Rights Council by name. Instead, the ambassador took issue with the UNHRC’s record over the past decade and a half.

“Since 2006, the council has adopted 90 resolutions condemning Israel — more than all the resolutions against Syria, North Korea and Iran, combined. The obsessive focus on Israel, along with its protection of oppressive, dictatorial regimes, shows that the Human Rights Council is in the business of white-washing the crimes of these countries,” he said.

“I call on all democracies that are still members of the council to immediately resign from this shameful and anti-Semitic body.”

Israel is the only country with a dedicated agenda item at the Council, meaning the Jewish state’s conduct is automatically discussed at each session.

The Trump administration withdrew from the council in 2018, in part over its treatment of the Jewish state.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned “bias” against Israel in a Tuesday statement responding to the vote.

He said that “the United States has urged UN member states to take immediate action to reform the Council before it became irreparable. Unfortunately, those calls went unheeded, and today the UN General Assembly once again elected countries with abhorrent human rights records, including China, Russia, and Cuba.”

Earlier this year, the UN published a “blacklist” of 112 firms operating in Israeli settlements. The catalog was published in response to a 2016 UNHRC resolution calling for a “database for all businesses engaged in specific activities related to Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory.”

A view of the Israeli West Bank settlement of Ariel, January 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

In Tuesday’s secret ballot vote, Russia and Cuba ran unopposed, while China and Saudi Arabia were in a five-way fight — the only contested race for seats on the UNHRC.

Pakistan received 169 votes, Uzbekistan 164, Nepal 150, China 139 and Saudi Arabia just 90 votes.

Despite announced reform plans by Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch and others strongly opposed its candidacy, saying the Middle East nation continues to target human rights defenders, dissidents and women’s rights activists, and has demonstrated little accountability for past abuses, including the killing of Washington Post columnist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two years ago.

Under the Human Rights Council’s rules, seats are allocated to regions to ensure geographical representation.

Except for the Asia-Pacific contest, the election of 15 members to the 47-member Human Rights Council was all but decided in advance because all the other regional groups had uncontested slates.

The Palace of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, home of the UN Human Rights Council (CC BY-SA Henry Mühlpfordt/Wikpedia)

Four countries won four Africa seats: Ivory Coast, Malawi, Gabon and Senegal. Russia and Ukraine won the two East European seats. In the Latin American and Caribbean group, Mexico, Cuba and Bolivia won the three open seats. And Britain and France won the two seats for the Western European and others group.

“Saudi Arabia’s failure to win a seat on the Human Rights Council is a welcome reminder of the need for more competition in UN elections,” Human Rights Watch’s UN director, Louis Charbonneau, said after the results were announced.

“Had there been additional candidates, China, Cuba and Russia might have lost too,” he said. “But the addition of these undeserving countries won’t prevent the council from shining a light on abuses and speaking up for victims. In fact, by being on the council, these abusers will be directly in the spotlight.”

Charbonneau earlier criticized UN member states, including Western nations, saying: “They don’t want competition… Essentially these are backroom deals that are worked out among the regional groups.”

Last week, a coalition of human rights groups from Europe, the United States and Canada called on UN member states to oppose the election of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, saying their human rights records make them “unqualified.”

A general view of the 37th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on February 26, 2018 in Geneva, Switzerland. (AFP Photo/Jean-Guy Python)

“Electing these dictatorships as UN judges on human rights is like making a gang of arsonists into the fire brigade,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch.

The Geneva-based rights organization published a 30-page joint report with the Human Rights Foundation and the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights evaluating candidates for council seats. The report lists Bolivia, Ivory Coast, Nepal, Malawi, Mexico, Senegal and Ukraine — all winners — as having “questionable” credentials due to problematic human rights and UN voting records that need improvement. It gave “qualified” ratings only to the United Kingdom and France.

Human Rights Watch pointed to an unprecedented call by 50 UN experts on June 26 for “decisive measures to protect fundamental freedoms in China,” warning about its mass rights violations in Hong Kong and Tibet and against ethnic Uighurs in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, as well as attacks on rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and government critics. Their call was echoed by over 400 civil society groups from more than 60 countries.

Of the four winners of seats in the Asia-Pacific group, China got the lowest vote.

In this December 3, 2018 file photo, a guard tower and barbed wire fence surround a detention facility in the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China’s Xinjiang region. (AP/Ng Han Guan, File)

The rights group said Russia’s military operations with the Syrian government “have deliberately or indiscriminately killed civilians and destroyed hospitals and other protected civilian infrastructure in violation of international humanitarian law,” and noted Russia’s veto of UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, including blocking Damascus’ referral to the International Criminal Court.

The Geneva-based Human Rights Council can spotlight abuses and has special monitors watching certain countries and issues. It also periodically reviews human rights in every UN member country.

Created in 2006 to replace a commission discredited because of some members’ poor rights records, the new council soon came to face similar criticism, including that rights abusers sought seats to protect themselves and their allies.

Human Rights Council spokesman Rolando Gomez said when the newly elected members take their seats in January, 119 of the 193 UN member States will have served on the council, reflecting its diversity and giving the council “legitimacy when speaking out on human rights violations in all countries.”

“No country has a perfect human rights record,” Gomez said, and “no state is immune from scrutiny of their human rights record, whether they are a member or not.”

“If a State thinks they can conceal the human rights violations they may have committed, or escape criticism by sitting on the Human Rights Council, they are greatly mistaken,” he said.

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