Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Fifteen of the HRC's 47 seats will be decided by U.N. General Assembly secret ballot on Wednesday. This will be the third annual election for the Geneva-based council, which was established two years ago to replace the widely discredited U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
Sri Lanka has drawn particular attention, with a coalition of international NGOs and three Nobel peace prize laureates among those highlighting abuses in the civil war-torn South Asian nation, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture. Sri Lanka's critics are urging U.N. members to withhold support.
"To reject Sri Lanka's candidacy at this time would show that U.N. members are serious about the membership standards they established for the council, and bring new attention to the gross violations in Sri Lanka and hope and support to the victims of abuse," the NGO coalition said in a recent letter to governments.
But some human rights campaigners have also questioned the eligibility of at least four additional countries in the running for council seats. According to an assessment by the NGOs Freedom House and U.N. Watch, Pakistan, Bahrain, Gabon and Zambia do also not deserve seats.
The assessment took into account candidates' past voting records, ratings for civil liberties and political rights, and global press freedom ranking.
Pakistan, which is standing for re-election on Wednesday, has established itself as a key -- and controversial -- force during its two years on the council. On behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) bloc, Pakistan has spearheaded efforts leading to repeated condemnations of Israel and a campaign to restrict freedom of expression in matters deemed to criticize or blaspheme Islam.
Because of the way the HRC is structured -- 26 of the 47 seats are earmarked for African and Asian countries -- the OIC and its allies in the developing world enjoy considerable influence.
An umbrella group of civil society organizations in Pakistan earlier opposed Islamabad's bid to renew its council membership, but after last February's election it shifted position, instead urging the new government to distinguish itself from the previous one by demonstrating a commitment to promoting and protecting human rights.
In a letter to new Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi confirming this changed position, the Pakistani groups dealt primarily with human rights abuses at home. But they also urged the government to use its council membership to promote the cause of human rights internationally, including "establishing and conducting effective systems for impartial and objective scrutiny and accountability on human rights."
When considering countries for membership, the 192 U.N. member states are required by the resolution that established the council to take into account candidates' contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights. Members of the council are expected to "uphold the highest standards" of human rights.
Nonetheless, in the two previous elections, numerous countries with widely-criticized human rights records made it onto the council, among them Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China. In the inaugural May 2006 election, only 25 of the total 47 members were ranked as "free" by Freedom House, while the following year's election saw that number drop below 50 percent, to 23. Freedom House annually rates countries based on political rights and civil liberties.
Given the countries standing for election this week and taking into account the possible voting permutations, even the best possible outcome would leave the council with a minority of 23 "free" members. A worst-case scenario would reduce the number of "free" nations even further, to just 21.
Ahead of Wednesday's election, Freedom House advocacy director Paula Schriefer urged democratic nations to act. The council "has the potential to be an important tool for promoting human rights," she said, "but not with members whose own actions impede the council's forward progress."
Another concern about the election is an absence of competition in some instances.
As with other U.N. bodies, the council was designed in line with the principle of "equitable geographic distribution," meaning each regional group has a set number of seats.
Thus of the 15 seats to be filled this week, four are earmarked for Asia, four for Africa, three for Latin America, two for Eastern Europe and two for "Western Europe and Others," a group known as WEOG that includes countries like the U.S., Canada and Australia.
In some cases, there will be no contest. In Africa, for instance, only four countries have made themselves available for four vacant seats. Although two of them -- Zambia and Gabon -- are "not qualified" for membership according to the Freedom House-U.N. Watch evaluation, they are guaranteed seats unless they fail to obtain the support of a majority, or 97 out of the 192 member states (an unlikely scenario that would then require other countries in the region to throw their hats into the ring.)
The Latin American group also has a fixed slate, with Argentina, Brazil and Chile standing for three available seats.
The other three groups will see some competition. In Eastern Europe, two seats are up for grabs with Ukraine, Serbia and Slovakia in the running; and in the WEOG, Britain, France and Spain will duke it out for two seats.
And in what will be the most significant contest, six Asian nations -- Japan, South Korea, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bahrain and East Timor -- are vying for four seats. Of the six, only Japan and South Korea are "free," so the outcome of the Asian race is the one with the most potential to change the council's overall composition.
'High hopes not realized'
The United States, once again, is not in the running for a seat. The U.S. was one of just four countries to vote against the 2006 resolution that established the HRC, arguing that it didn't go nearly far enough to reform the body it was replacing, the flawed U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
The council's performance since then has continued to draw strong criticism from Washington, and despite having said in 2006 that it would "likely" seek membership in 2007, it did not.
Aside from the presence of rights violators, criticism from the U.S. and others has centered on the council's disproportionate focus on Israel. Nine out of 14 council resolutions that censured specific countries during 2007-8 applied to Israel (of the other five, four applied to Burma and one to North Korea.)
Other concerns include the council's decisions last year to end the mandates of special investigators who were monitoring Cuba and Belarus - countries the State Department called "two of the world's most active perpetrators of serious human rights violations."
Department spokesman Sean McCormack said last month that the U.S. had "chosen not to seek election to the Human Rights Council because of our real differences with the way it has operated. We had high hopes for it when it came into being, but sadly, those hopes have not been realized."
Following passage of legislation in the House and Senate last summer, the U.S. is also withhold a small portion of its 2008 funding for the U.N. that is equivalent to the U.S. share of the HRC budget. Because of the way the council is funded the decision will have little practical effect, but it is intended to send a signal of disapproval.
States that are not members do participate at the council's Geneva sessions as observers, and the U.S. plays an active role.
Still, the U.S. decision not to join the council has prompted considerable debate over the past two years, with many human rights groups, policy analysts, and organizations supportive of the U.N. arguing that by staying out of the HRC the U.S. is surrendering its leadership and missing an opportunity to improve a flawed institution.
Heritage Foundation scholar Brett Schaefer disagrees, noting that because of the geographic representation issue, the U.S. as a member would simply displace another Western democracy in one of the seven seats set aside for the WEOG.
Those Western countries already vote largely the way the U.S. would vote, he said in a recent analysis.
"Winning a seat on the council would not necessarily give the U.S. greater voice or influence," Schaefer said. "Any U.N. member state can comment on and speak to issues before the council, and the U.S. has frequently expressed its support of or opposition to various resolutions and decisions."
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