A vote of confidence: Enhancing UN Human Rights Council elections


The Human Rights Council is only as strong as its members enable it to be, and its ability to live up to its human rights protection mandate hinges on the election of strong, committed States, writes Amnesty International’s Richard Bennett.

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By Richard Bennett, Representative and Head of Amnesty International’s UN Office in New York

Ten years is an important milestone for the UN Human Rights Council (the Council) and a good moment to reflect on its achievements. There is no doubt that the Council has chalked up some important successes in this time, not least in ensuring that human rights remain visible across the UN’s activities.

And yet, vast challenges remain. As Amnesty International warned in its 2016 Annual Report ‘The State of the World’s Human Rights’, international protection of human rights and the institutions that promote them are under critical strain and are in danger of unravelling altogether. Across the globe, governments are shamelessly painting the protection of human rights as a threat to security, law and order or national ‘values’, while millions of people are suffering at the hands of repressive States and armed groups. Accountability for violations is severely limited and too many decisions and recommendations by international human rights bodies go unimplemented.

In the face of these immense challenges, a robust and effectual Human Rights Council is needed now more than ever.

The Council is most effective in promoting and protecting human rights when all of its members are firmly committed to doing so. While every State can improve its human rights record, some members of the Council have plainly failed to get even close to upholding the highest standards we are entitled to expect and in some cases their conduct has deteriorated while they have been Council members.

The forthcoming election of 14 new members in October 2016 is an opportunity to improve the composition of the Council and can go a long way towards remedying this.

On paper at least, the Human Rights Council has by a long stretch the most robust and transparent election process of any UN body; but in order to achieve its aim these modalities need to be followed in good faith. UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251 which established the Council paves the way for open and contested elections – but Member States must play their part in making this work.

Contested elections

As in any democratic process, the pressure of contested elections is essential. A consistent failure of the regional blocs in Council member elections is the practice of presenting ‘clean slates’; whereby they provide exactly the same number of candidates as the vacancies to be filled. This essentially denies the General Assembly the opportunity to choose the most suitable candidate and flies in the face of the spirit of Resolution 60/251.

However, over the last decade, all of the five regional groups have resorted to presenting clean, that is uncontested, slates in the majority of these elections. The African group has shown itself to be the worst ‘clean slate’ offender, presenting clean slates at seven out of nine elections. Asia-Pacific States and Western Europe and Other States closely followed them with six clean slates. Latin America and the Caribbean States and Eastern Europe each presented five clean slates. Every region has presented a clean slate more often than a contested one. This is a very disappointing record in the Council’s first decade.

Qualified candidates

As well as having a choice of candidates, Resolution 60/251 states that General Assembly members should assess each candidate’s commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights before deciding how to cast their vote.

All candidates should make their case by submitting concrete, credible and measurable pledges and commitments to promote and protect human rights at the national and international levels. Guidelines for these have been provided in the Suggested Elements for Voluntary Pledges and Commitments by Candidates for Election to the Human Rights Council, as prepared by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.[1]

Crucially, pledges should include a commitment to ratify and implement the core human rights treaties and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, to withdraw limiting reservations to such treaties, to submit periodic reports on time and come before the treaty bodies to discuss them, and to act on the recommendations of the treaty bodies promptly. The guidelines also ask candidates to commit to a national human rights policy including in the areas of discrimination, women’s rights and collaboration with civil society.

Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly common for candidates to fail to make election pledges, especially in blocs that have presented a ‘clean slate’. In fact, at the last election in October 2015, nearly half of the election hopefuls (12 out of 21) failed to make their voluntary pledges and commitments available as official UN documents. Moreover, Far too many of the pledges are vacuous and fail to include commitment to concrete action to protect human rights.

Considered vote casting

Finally, it is imperative that UN Member States only vote for candidates that have clearly demonstrated their commitment to human rights. Where a clean slate has been presented, States can, and should, leave the ballot paper blank if a suitable candidate has not been presented. The dismaying practice of vote trading on human rights should never be employed.

The way forward

Ultimately, the Human Rights Council is only as strong as its members enable it to be, and its ability to live up to its human rights protection mandate hinges on the election of strong, committed States. General Assembly resolution 60/251 has been undermined by poor practice; however it can still provide an important roadmap to achieving this goal.

A successful Council would contribute substantively to preventing serious human rights violations. It would respond promptly; it would promote accountability; it would be consistent; it would promote good human rights practice input throughout the UN system; and it would promote full implementation of human rights obligations everywhere.

This might seem like a tall order, but aiming any lower would be an abdication of responsibilities under the UN Charter.