Vote trading and sliding standards risk eroding the credibility of the Human Rights Council

05.10.2016

The world’s nations need to apply more rigor and integrity to the process of appointing the members of the world’s peak human rights body, write ISHR’s Eleanor Openshaw, Madeleine Sinclair and Michael Ineichen.

Later this month the General Assembly of the UN will vote for the next group of nations to take up seats at the Human Rights Council.

The Council’s very founding document sets out the membership criteria. Most notably it explains that members of the Council must uphold the highest standards when it comes to the protection and promotion of human rights and must fully cooperate with the Council and its various experts and procedures.

Adherence to these standards is vital to maintain the legitimacy, authority and ultimately the impact of the Council which can and does make a positive contribution to addressing some of the world’s most pressing human rights crisis.  Membership of the Council should also prompt States to better fulfill commitments to improving human rights at the national level.   

Unfortunately the standards are slipping. Big time.

Nations with prolific records of human rights violations like Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia, manage to keep getting voted on to the Council where they largely play wrecking roles of obstructing and weakening a host of resolutions and initiatives aimed at responding to and preventing human rights violations.

Last month another Council member, Burundi, failed to even show up to a session of the Committee Against Torture where it was due to answer deeply concerning questions about its rapidly deteriorating domestic situation which is seeing human rights defenders, journalists and others being systematically attacked by the authorities. It later used its membership of the Council to call for a vote in a desperate attempt to prevent the Council from establishing a Commission of Inquiry into Burundi. Thankfully the vote was defeated and the Commission of Inquiry established.

Such a level of contempt for the Council and the UN’s other human rights mechanisms simply cannot be tolerated. This is why the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) is urging members of the General Assembly to suspend Burundi from the Council as a matter or principle and to set an important precedent.

Fortunately, despite having such rogues and saboteurs within its own ranks, the Human Rights Council manages to do good important work and have an impact on world affairs.

For example, at the last session of the Council, responding to growing hate and violence faced by LGBT people around the world, the Council appointed a new independent expert to investigate violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

It’s clearly a wise move to strive for a higher calibre of member for the world’s peak human rights body.  We need members actually committed to the challenge of promoting and protecting human rights within the Council.  So how can we do it?

For a start, vote trading needs to be taken off the table when it comes to Human Rights Council elections and membership. It’s pretty simple; nations shouldn’t promise to vote other nations onto the Council in return for appointments to other bodies or to advance other interests.  Just don’t do it. Full stop.

Further we need real transparency and scrutiny of the records at home and at the UN of the candidates and of their vision for their time on the Council.

ISHR seeks to foster greater transparency and accountability with initiatives such as our recent ‘#HRCpledging’ events in New York and Geneva, organised in partnership with Amnesty International, which enable social media users from around the world to put questions to the nations seeking election to the Council.

The countries casting votes (i.e. every nation in the General Assembly) should clearly and publically articulate the criteria on which they vote for candidates. The actual vote is a secret ballot – for good reason – but the public should at least know what their governments are looking for in candidates.

Choice is another key component that would improve the current situation. As the Council consists of set numbers of representatives from each region, nations often stand unopposed.  But even in cases of ‘closed slates’ when there is no competition, those casting the votes don’t have to vote for the unopposed candidate. Candidates need a majority of the General Assembly to vote for them in order to get a seat on the Council. So rather than rubber-stamping questionable candidates because no one else is running, rights-respecting nations should withhold their votes.

Since the membership criteria exists, electing States should carefully consider whether candidates are living up to it when casting their votes.

In particular, it is incumbent on Council members to set an example by cooperating fully with the Council’s human rights mechanisms, in particular by issuing and honouring an effective open invitation to the Council’s human rights experts.

Furthermore, the Council depends heavily on the free and safe cooperation of human rights defenders for its effective functioning. States who threaten and carry out reprisals and attacks against those who engage with the UN are not fit for membership.

States who fail to meet these criteria simply should not be elected. 

There are a number of reforms which could enhance the Council’s work – for example, making it more accessible for human rights defenders on the ground and allowing it to take more proactive action to prevent human rights abuses from occurring - but at more basic level, we simply must strive to uphold a higher standard of membership.

It’s a no brainer. Human rights violators, obstructionists and non-cooperative nations should not be welcome on the Human Rights Council. We need our governments of the world to stop rolling out the red carpet for them.

Eleanor Openshaw is ISHR New York office director and head of regional advocacy.

Madeleine Sinclair is ISHR New York office director and legal counsel.

Michael Ineichen is ISHR Programme manager on corporate accountability and Human Rights Council advocacy director.

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