The Human Rights Council: “a parody of itself”

  • Date / 14 November 2013

The International Humanist and Ethical Union’s main representative at Geneva, Roy Brown, laments another controversial election to the UN Human Rights Council.

The election of new member states to the UN Human Rights Council this week was once again a complete sham.

The fourteen new states include many with serious or deteriorating human rights profiles, including such serial offenders as China, Maldives, Morocco, Namibia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Viet Nam.

At the insistence of the so-called non-aligned states when the Council was set up in 2006, states are elected on a regional basis: 13 seats for Africa, 13 for Asia-Pacific states, 6 for Eastern Europe, 8 for Latin America and the Caribbean, and 7 from Western European and “other states” including North America.

In practice this means that the regional blocks can decide among themselves which states are to apply for membership, often resulting in “clean slate” elections in which competition is at best an illusion. For example, in the case of Asia this year there were only four candidates — China, Maldives, Saudi Arabia and Viet Nam — for the four vacancies, so the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

What has happened here? It is not that the philosophy behind the United Nations itself is fundamentally flawed, but a case of the good intentions being corrupted once again by the vested interests of powerful Member States. When the UN’s previous rights body, the discredited Commission for Human Rights, was abolished under then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, he proposed a Human Rights Council to be composed only of states pledged to uphold human rights. But his fine intentions were watered down by the refusal of many non-western states to make membership conditional on any such pledge.

Thus it was possible that this week we saw the spectacle of Saudi Arabia being elected to the Council. Saudi Arabia is the only state on Earth that never signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights nor any of the international covenants on human rights, and which seems to enact a policy of permanent, unashamed suppression of human rights organizations.

Even worse perhaps was the re-election of China, a state with an utterly appalling human rights record, which just to add insult to injury was severely criticised as recently as last month by the very same Human Rights Council at which it now takes a seat!

It is hard to see how the Council, with its in-built majority of human rights abusers, will ever be able to carry out its mandate: the promotion and protection of human rights around the world. As it stands, the Council is a parody of itself, and something fundamental needs to change… again!

Note: The International Humanist and Ethical Union is accredited as an NGO observer to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Read about or work.

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