Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Thursday, May 22, 2008
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, 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.
'Bias and Hypocrisy' Displayed at UN Rights Council, Say Critics (Mar. 27, 2008)
OIC Wants 'Binding Legal Instrument' to Fight Islamophobia (Mar. 13, 2008)
Cuba Says UN Rights Council Has Helped It Turn Tables on USA (Mar. 04, 2008)
Islamic States Chide UN Head for Criticizing Human Rights Body (Jul. 26, 2007)
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