The World of International Organizations

China, Russia join U.N. Human Rights Council

The U.N. Human Rights Council chamber, in Geneva, with its dome painted by Spanish artist Miquel Barceló (AN/Eric Bridiers)

GENEVA (Arête News) — Despite stinging criticism from the U.S. government and human rights campaigners, China, Cuba and Russia were among 15 nations that won seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia, another target of widespread criticism over its human rights record, failed to win a three-year seat on the world’s top human rights body based at the U.N.’s European headquarters. Most of the seats up for election to the 47-nation council were uncontested.

The seats are allotted by regional groups so that the council’s representatives will be geographically dispersed. Cuba and Russia had no competition for their seats because all of the bids from Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean were unopposed.

The U.N. General Assembly’s 193 member nations voted by secret ballot. The backing of a majority of the assembly, or at least 97 votes, is needed for a nation to win a council seat.

In the Asia-Pacific group, China and Saudi Arabia were in a five-way race for the only contested seats. Pakistan won 169 votes; Uzbekistan, 164; Nepal, 150; China, 139; and Saudi Arabia, 90.

Four years earlier, Saudi Arabia got 152 votes to pick up a seat from 2017 to 2019. It faced strong opposition this time around, as human rights groups criticized the nation’s targeting of activists and dissidents, including the 2018 orchestrated killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate at Istanbul, Turkey.

Human Rights Watch’s China director, Sophie Richardson, noted “a significant loss of support for China at the council” this time around. China had received 167 votes to win a council seat in 2009, then picked up 176 votes in 2013 and 180 votes in 2016.

“China’s return to the Human Rights Council is no doubt problematic, but the council will make do,” she said in a statement. “Throughout its short history, the council has persisted with abusive governments among its members. Membership has consequences, not least heightened scrutiny of their own human rights records.”

Along with Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Nepal and China from the Asia-Pacific group, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Gabon and Senegal won seats from the Africa group. Russia and Ukraine gained East European seats. Britain and France won seats from Western Europe. Mexico, Cuba and Bolivia picked up seats from the Latin American and Caribbean group.

Widespread criticism

The council was created in 2006 to replace an earlier U.N. entity that lost effectiveness and credibility due to its politicization and inclusion of human rights abusers. Former President George W. Bush’s administration refused to join the new council, but under former President Barack Obama’s administration, the United States reversed course.

The new council gained credibility and energy from U.S. participation. But U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration announced the United States’ withdrawal in 2018, complaining it was biased against Israel and included repressive governments in its ranks.

After Tuesday’s voting by the General Assembly, America’s top diplomat, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said the results showed U.S. calls for council reform went unheeded.

“Today the U.N. General Assembly once again elected countries with abhorrent human rights records, including China, Russia, and Cuba. Venezuela was elected in 2019,” he said in a statement. “These elections only further validate the U.S. decision to withdraw and use other venues and opportunities to protect and promote universal human rights.”

Western nations along with international organizations have drawn widespread attention to China’s crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong and massive rights violations of ethnic Muslim Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province. Russia has recently come under fire for an array of charges ranging from targeting civilians in Syria to poisoning opposition leader Alexei Navalny with a Soviet-era nerve agent.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of Geneva-based U.N. Watch, a watchdog group often critical of the council, said 60 percent of its member nations fail to meet the minimum standards for a free democracy. Before Tuesday’s election, he said, 51 percent fell short.

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