On Friday, October 29th the United Nations General Assembly elected 14 States to the UN Human Rights Council, the main intergovernmental body charged with promoting and monitoring human rights around the world. [New York Times] The 14 new members include Brazil, Croatia, Egypt, Hungary, Iraq, Japan, Rwanda, Tunisia, and the United States. China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom were re-elected for an additional term. [UN Press Release] Each elected State will serve a three-year term beginning in January 2017.
Human rights advocates have called for more competitive elections to ensure that elected States face scrutiny over their human rights records before sitting on the Human Rights Council. [HRW: Seat] Seats on the Human Rights Council are distributed by region, and this year, the Eastern Europe group had two seats available and three countries competing for those seats: Russia, Croatia, and Hungary. [HRW: Seat] Russia lost to Croatia by a two-vote margin, which is the first time a permanent member of the UN Security Council has lost a seat and which many are attributing to Russia’s recent actions in Aleppo, Syria. [New York Times] However, other countries with ongoing severe human rights violations, such as Saudi Arabia, were uncontested for re-election within their regional bloc and, therefore, once again sit on the Human Rights Council. [HRW: Seat]
Human Rights Council Elections
The Human Rights Council is made up of 47 member nations, selected based on an equitable geographical distribution from among UN Member States. African States have 13 seats, Asia-Pacific States have 13 seats, Eastern European States have six seats, Latin American and Caribbean States have eight seats, and Western European and other States have seven seats. Members serve for a period of three years and are eligible for re-election after one term. They are not, however, eligible for immediate re-election after two consecutive terms. See OHCHR, United Nations Human Rights Council.
The UN General Assembly has set general guidelines on the attributes of States on the Human Rights Council. General Assembly Resolution 60/251 provides that the General Assembly should consider “the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights” and that “members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” See UN General Assembly, Resolution 60/251, Human Rights Council, U.N. Doc. A/RES/60/251, 3 April 2006, paras. 8-9. Yet, any Member State can be elected to the Human Rights Council without significant reference to its human rights records; to be elected, a Member State needs support from the majority of the General Assembly members. See id. at para. 7.
The composition of the Human Rights Council has been controversial among human rights advocates who allege that, without a competitive election process, the Council’s credibility and ability to hold rights abusers accountable is undermined. [HRW: Seat] Although General Assembly Resolution 60/251 outlines a procedure for contested elections, during the last decade, every regional bloc has presented a “clean slate” more often than a contested one. That is, regional blocs have provided the exact same number of candidates as the number of vacancies to be filled. [ISHR] For example, while Russia’s failure to retain its seat made headlines, countries like China and Saudi Arabia were re-elected without much notice. Unlike the Eastern Europe group, the Asia group only put forward four candidates for their four open seats. All four – Saudi Arabia, China, Iraq, and Japan – won without competition. [HRW: Seat] Organizations like Human Rights Watch argue that “countries that run without competition cannot possibly face proper scrutiny of their human rights records.” [HRW: Seat]
Additionally, the practice of presenting “clean slates” has resulted in candidates failing to submit pledges on human rights commitments at the national and international level, which they are invited to make voluntarily before elections. [ISHR] Although voluntary, these pledges are designed to ensure that the most qualified candidate is elected to the Human Rights Council. See UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council, para. 8. The UN Office of the High Commissioner has even issued suggested pledges to assist States in making them. However, in blocs that present “clean slates,” it is increasingly common for candidates to fail to make election pledges. [ISHR]
As an intergovernmental body whose members are chosen by States, the Human Rights Council and its elections are influenced by political considerations. Russia’s loss to Croatia, some claim, signals the diplomatic cost of its war in Syria and its role in Aleppo bombings. [The Guardian] In 2001, the United States had a similar experience in an election to the Human Rights Commission, the Human Rights Council’s predecessor. The United States’ loss was attributed to its position on China, Cuba, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. [New York Times]
Role of the Human Rights Council
The Human Rights Council monitors human rights conditions, engages in discussion, and exerts pressure on States to hold them accountable for human rights abuses. It has the ability to set up special procedure mandates and inquiry panels to investigate and report on human rights abuses and issue recommendations to address ongoing violations. The Human Rights Council also conducts the Universal Periodic Review, the process through which UN Member States review one another’s human rights records. It may issue resolutions calling on States to take specific actions or to uphold certain principles in addition to its other powers. See IJRC, UN Human Rights Council.
The Human Rights Council is charged with promoting human rights around the world, but advocates argue that the Human Rights Council’s ability to successfully expose human rights violations is crippled when countries with poor human rights records sit on the Council and curtail the exposure of their abuses or those of their allies. [HRW: Suspend] For example, while human rights advocates had wanted the Human Rights Council to create a panel to investigate abuses in Yemen, Saudi Arabia opposed it. [New York Times]
The UN Human Rights Council was created by the General Assembly in May 2006 pursuant to resolution 60/251 as the principal UN body to focus on human rights. Its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, operated from 1946 to 2006, when its was disbanded amid accusations of ineffectiveness and politicization. [UN News Centre]
For information on how to engage with the Human Rights Council, see IJRC’s Primer for Advocacy Opportunities with the Human Rights Council, and to learn more about the UN Human Rights Council, special procedures, the Universal Periodic review, or the UN General Assembly visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.