Only 22 of UN Human Rights Council’s 47 seats are held by free countries

  • Date / 29 May 2008

Keith Porteous Wood writes: The stranglehold of oppressive countries over the United Nations Human Rights Council has slightly intensified as a result of elections held on 21 May 2008 at the UN General Assembly. The number of “free” countries in the 47 member Council has dropped from 23 to 22.

Sixteen members of the Council are member countries of the Organisation of Islamic conference, only one of which is classified as “free”. They often vote as a bloc with countries other countries not well-known for their defence of human rights such as China, Russia and Cuba to defeat the “free” countries.

This is the second term of the new Council which replaced a Commission because it had become discredited. The results of this election dispels any hope of any radical improvement in the Council’s deteriorating performance. The only bright spot is that the UK was able to hold onto its seat. Its Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch Brown, until recently Deputy Secretary General at the UN, is determined that the UK should do its utmost to improve the Council. I have written on behalf of IHEU to congratulate him on the re-appointment. One of his major concerns is that the USA remains on the sidelines in this process. We can only hope that a change of Presidency will change this, but optimism is not high.

The definition and categorisation of Free countries is by Freedom House, who we happily acknowledge.


Islamic Bloc Nations Control One-Third of UN Rights Council Seats

CNSNews.com International Editor Patrick Goodenough May 22, 2008

(CNSNews.com) – In a mixed result for those concerned about the makeup and performance of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, Sri Lanka failed Wednesday to win another term, but bids by Pakistan and Bahrain were successful. Two African countries with poor human rights records, Gabon and Zambia, also attained seats on the Geneva-based body.

The U.N. General Assembly elected 15 countries to three-year terms on Wednesday. When the voting ended, the number of council members regarded as “free” had dropped by one, to 22 of a total 47. (In the HRC’s inaugural May 2006 election, only 25 of the total 47 HRC members were ranked as “free” by Freedom House, a human rights advocacy group.)

Sixteen countries — one third — in the Human Rights Council are members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a grouping that has drawn scrutiny during the first two years of the council’s operation for promoting an agenda that critics say undermines the cause of international human rights. (Of the 16, only one — Indonesia — is defined as free by Freedom House.)

All 192 U.N. member states voted by secret ballot for candidates in each of the five regional groups recognized by the world body.

The election saw no contest to fill four vacant seats in Africa and three in Latin America, and they were taken respectively by Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana and Zambia, and Argentina, Brazil and Chile.

In Eastern Europe, Serbia lost to Slovakia and Ukraine in a race for two vacant seats, and a three-way race for two seats in the Western Europe and Others group saw Spain edged out by Britain and France.

The most closely watched race was in Asia, where six countries competed for four Asian seats. Pakistan, Bahrain, Japan and South Korea were successful, while Sri Lanka and East Timor were not.

An international coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) earlier campaigned against Sri Lanka’s candidacy, citing violations including torture, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

Welcoming Sri Lanka’s defeat, Michael Anthony of the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission voiced hope the result would lead to new international dialogue with the South Asian country that encourages the government to put an end to security force violations.

Well over 60,000 people have been killed in a 25-year conflict between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group designated as a foreign terrorist organization in the U.S. and banned in several other countries.

Anthony said although the LTTE also commits grave abuses, that does not justify abuses by the government.

U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based group that monitors the Human Rights Council, said it was pleased that the NGO-driven campaign to deny Sri Lanka a seat had been successful, but it voiced dismay over Pakistan’s victory.

U.N. Watch executive director Hillel Neuer noted that 114 out of the 192 member states voted in favor of Pakistan and 142 had supported Bahrain. In doing so, he said, they had “failed to respect human rights standards.”

“Unless the U.N. stops electing the worst violators to the Human Rights Council, we will continue to have the foxes guarding the chickens,” he said.

Islamic bloc’s agenda

Pakistan has led the OIC bloc’s activities at the council, where democracies have frequently been outvoted by the Islamic nations and developing world allies like China, Cuba, Russia and South Africa.

Apart from multiple resolutions condemning Israel, the OIC has also drawn attention for blocking efforts to censure Sudan over the conflict in Darfur and for promoting a “defamation of religion” resolution that critics say aims at limiting freedom of expression.

In an especially controversial move, the OIC with Pakistan at the helm last month redefined the mandate of a special U.N. investigator on freedom of expression, requiring him now also to report on cases “in which the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination.”

Press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders at the time called the change “dramatic” and said the OIC’s growing influence in the council was “disturbing.”

U.S. ambassador Warren Tichenor said the step would have the effect of criminalizing free expression, adding that the council had moved “from protecting rights to eroding them.”

The U.S. has not sought membership of the council since its launch two years ago, and has been strongly critical of its performance.

The council was established to replace the 60-year-old U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which drew frequent criticism over the presence and conduct of rights-violating nations.

The U.S. voted against the resolution setting up the council, arguing that it did not go far enough to prevent recurrence of the problems that plagued the commission.

“In some ways the Human Rights Council is worse than its predecessor,” U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Zalmay Khalilzad told a meeting of Jewish organizations last month.

Freedom House bases its annual assessments on scores for political rights and civil liberties. As of 2007 it recognized 90 of the world’s 193 countries (including Taiwan [Taiwan, Province of ChinaInformation about why we use this terminology], which is not a U.N. member) as free, 60 as partly free and 43 as not free. While still in a minority at 47 percent, the number of free countries has grown from 44 out of a total of 151 (29 percent) in 1972.

The new Human Rights Council members elected Wednesday will begin their terms on June 20.

Council members that also belong to the OIC are Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, Indonesia, Jordan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Senegal and Qatar.

The rest of the council comprises Angola, Argentina, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Cuba, France, Germany, Ghana, India, Italy, Japan, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mexico, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Philippines, Russian, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Uruguay and Zambia.

Changes have been made to this page after publication, to reflect United Nations terminology. More information.

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