UN: Noncompetitive Elections Weaken Rights Council

Newly Elected Countries Should Do More to Respect Rights

Limited competition in elections for the United Nations Human Rights Council undermines membership standards set for the body by the UN General Assembly, Human Rights Watch, FORUM-ASIA, and the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project said today. Although the General Assembly elected 18 countries to the Human Rights Council on November 12, 2012, only three faced challengers in their bids for a seat.

“To call the vote in the General Assembly an ‘election’ gives this process way too much credit,” said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
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“Until there is real competition for seats in the Human Rights Council, its membership standards will remain more rhetoric than reality.”

Seats on the Council are allotted by regional group. Only the Western Europe and Other Group (WEOG) put forward more candidates than the number of seats available. Germany, Greece, Ireland, Sweden, and the United States vied for three seats, which ultimately went to Germany, Ireland, and the US.

The other countries elected in the other regional groups are Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, and Sierra Leone from the Africa Group; Japan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from the Asia Group; Estonia and Montenegro from the Eastern European Group; and Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela from the Latin America and Caribbean Group.

Human Rights Council members are expected to “uphold the highest standards” of human rights and “fully cooperate” with the Council under General Assembly Resolution 60/251, which established the body.
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A group of nongovernmental organizations that work on improving the Human Rights Council had called on some of the countries seeking seats on the Council – EthiopiaPakistanthe UAE, and Venezuela – to take specific steps to improve their human rights records in light of their candidacies, given the extent of human rights concerns in those countries.

“States elected to the Human Rights Council should take real steps to address rights concerns at home before taking up their seats in Geneva next January,” said Yap Swee Seng, executive director of Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA). “Pakistan, for one, should show up at the Council having demonstrated tangible improvements in the prevention of discrimination and attacks against religious minorities, the protection of human rights defenders and journalists, and ending enforced disappearances.”

By using a rotation system that virtually guarantees seats to countries whether or not they meet membership standards, the African Group has effectively rejected the principle of competitive elections. Countries with stronger human rights records in Africa have been unwilling to challenge the African Group’s standing practice of putting forward “closed” slates.

When Kenya declared its candidacy for the Human Rights Council at the end of July, it briefly appeared that the African Group might buck this trend. However, Sudan withdrew its bid for a seat in September under pressure, leaving Africa again with a “closed slate” of five candidates for five seats.

“Year in and year out, the African Group’s  rotation system has virtually guaranteed the election of countries like Ethiopia that are serious human rights violators,” said Hassan Shire, executive director of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (EHAHRDP).
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“Injecting a healthy dose of competition into the elections would make for a stronger membership and a more effective Human Rights Council.”

In past years, human rights organizations mounted successful campaigns against the candidacies of Belarus (2007), Sri Lanka (2008), and Azerbaijan (2009), while Iran (2010) and Syria (2011) withdrew their candidacies under pressure from human rights groups. However, a number of states with repressive human rights records have been elected without facing competition, including Libya in 2010, as well as Cuba and Saudi Arabia in 2009.

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In Ghana, Esther Tawiah is one of the loudest voices for women empowerment and gender. It is also why she is one of the most loathed. Born and raised in New-Tafo in the country’s eastern region, Esther grew up surrounded by a culture that frowned at the idea of women participating in public affairs, and witnessed firsthand, the backlash those who dared to challenge that cultural norm faced.

“I grew up in a society where ageism and sexism were so entrenched. As a young person, you weren’t supposed to give your opinion on public issues, especially if you were a woman. Women who dared to speak up were caricatured and branded as frustrated, unmarriageable prostitutes, all designed to shut them up,” she says.

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