GA suspends Libya from Human Rights Council


On 1 March, the General Assembly adopted by consensus a resolution that suspended Libya from the Human Rights Council 1] This measure was the latest in a series of UN actions to address the human rights situation in Libya following the widespread use of force against and killing of peaceful protestors by the Government.


On 1 March, the General Assembly adopted by consensus a resolution that suspended Libya from the Human Rights Council 1] This measure was the latest in a series of UN actions to address the human rights situation in Libya following the widespread use of force against and killing of peaceful protestors by the Government.  In an emergency session a few days earlier, the Security Council also unanimously adopted a resolution referring Libya to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and imposing sanctions against Libyan leaders, including an arms embargo, travel bans and an asset freeze.[2] These developments followed the adoption of a resolution by the Human Rights Council on 25 February that set up an independent commission of enquiry to investigate serious human rights violations in Libya, and recommended that the General Assembly consider suspending the country’s membership in the Council.

The first-time use of a procedural mechanism, as set out in the resolution which established the Council,[3] to oust a State from the Human Rights Council shows that the General Assembly can act decisively and unanimously in response to grave and urgent human rights situations when political will is strong. It also sends a strong message that the General Assembly is prepared to hold Council members accountable for committing egregious violations.  Time will tell if the reaction in this case will translate to a commitment to unified and swift action when flagrant human rights abuses occur elsewhere.  At the least, Libya's suspension, effective immediately, will likely influence the state of play during the current Human Rights Council session, including in relation to a new resolution which seeks to establish a special procedure on Iran.

The General Assembly’s resolution was introduced by Lebanon, and supported by over 50 co-sponsors from a range of UN political and regional groupings, including the Organization of Islamic Conference, the League of Arab States and the African group. The unanimous support for the resolution, including from States that traditionally condemn country-specific responses to human rights situations, appeared to signal a major shift in General Assembly dynamics.  However, some of these States, in their interventions before and after the text’s adoption, indicated that their support came with caveats, including that the decision should not be interpreted to undermine the principles of territorial integrity and state sovereignty, or be used to justify military intervention.

In particular, Venezuela and Cuba accused the US of planning an armed attack against Libya under the pretext of concern for human rights.  Others, such as the African Group, avoided inflammatory rhetoric, but still underscored that the resolution should not lead to the denial of the sovereign right of states to fulfill their mandates as elected members of UN bodies. Lebanon highlighted that the procedure in the resolution was “exceptional and temporary”. The EU, and several GRULAC States, did not engage in the debate on sovereignty, but acknowledged the situation’s fluidity, and expressed preparedness to reexamine the status of Libya’s membership on the basis of the evolution of the human rights developments on the ground. China and Russia stressed that the removal  of Libya did not constitute a precedent. By making this point, two of the permanent five members attempted misguidedly to dispose of the decsion as being sui generis in order to prevent the creation of an established process to use in future cases.

In other interventions, States welcomed the strengthening of the UN’s human rights mechanism through implementation of the suspension clause. Others pointed out that the Libyan government was a bad candidate when it was elected to the Council, and that the key lesson should be to strengthen the parameters and criteria for election to the Council. [4]

The Security Council resolution also marked an important milestone in the strengthening of the human rights framework as it was first time that the US and China voted to support a Security Council referral to the ICC.[5] A day before the adoption of the resolution, the Libyan Ambassador to the UN publically defected from the government, following an earlier announcement by the Ambassador to the UN in Geneva that he would no longer represent the Libyan government. This defection, and the support of many African and Arab countries for the resolution, was the likely lynchpin that allowed Russia and China to agree to the inclusion of the referral to the ICC.

The Security Council resolution welcomed the Human Rights Council text calling for a commission of enquiry into the human right situation in Libya. It also urged the Libyan authorities to respect human rights and international humanitarian law, and allow immediate access for international human rights monitors. It requested the ICC's Chief Prosecutor to report back to the Security Council in two months on his investigation. The resolution also established a committee to consider whether sanctions should be imposed on other individuals and entities who commit serious human rights abuses, including aerial bombardments on civilian populations or facilities.

[1] A/65/L.60. In the predominately procedural text, the General Assembly exercises its authority to suspend Libya’s membership in the Human Rights Council, and also decides to review the case, ‘as appropriate’.

[2] Security Council Resolution 1970. Adopted 26 February 2011

[3]The grounds for the suspension of a Council member is set out in General Assembly Resolution 60/251, and provides that the General Assembly can “ by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting, suspend the rights of membership in the Council of a member of the Council that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.” OP8.  A/60/251

[4] Libya won a 3-year term to the Council in May 2010, with 155 votes out of the 192-member General Assembly.  This occurred despite the resolution establishing the Council stipulates that “members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”

[5] The US and China both abstained on the 2005 vote on Sudan, the only other time a situation was referred to the ICC.