World's 'most flagrant abusers' set to join UN Human Rights Council

Among the nations poised to join the UN Human Rights Council are Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia, which have all stymied attempts by the council to look into their human-rights records.

Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone/AP
Activists from Students for a Free Tibet display a banner on scaffolding in front of the of the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, last month.

Saudi Arabia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Russia – sounds like a list of countries targeted by international nongovernmental organizations for gross violations of human rights.

Well, yes, it’s that, too. But it’s also a partial list of the countries that are expected to win easy election next week to the United Nations Human Rights Council. On Tuesday, the UN General Assembly votes to fill 14 seats on the 47-member council, the UN’s highest human-rights institution.  

The Human Rights Council has been criticized for welcoming countries with questionable human-rights records into its Geneva-based membership ever since it was created in 2006 to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission.

But this year’s list of candidates, which are selected by region and serve three-year terms, has human-rights groups howling.

“For the UN to elect Saudi Arabia as a world judge on human rights would be like a town making a pyromaniac into chief of the fire department,” says Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a Geneva-based UN monitoring group that focuses on human rights.

Last month, New York-based Human Rights Watch blasted Saudi Arabia for its “extraordinarily high levels of repression and its failure to carry out its promises to the Human Rights Council.”

Human Rights Watch this week joined more than 40 other human-rights groups in publishing an open letter that calls on the international community to deny the world’s “most flagrant abusers” a seat on the council.

Saying the election of countries that fail to uphold “the highest human rights standards” undermines the council, the letter says that “the unwillingness of candidates such as Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia to respect and support the important role played by civil society, non-governmental organizations, and human rights defenders is deeply concerning.”

Human Rights Watch also notes that several of this year’s candidates have flagrantly rebuffed the work of the organization they now seek to join.    

According to the group, five of this year’s 16 council candidates have for years rejected council efforts to send expert teams to review their respect for human rights. China, Russia, and Algeria have each refused 10 or more requests for expert visits, while Saudi Arabia and Vietnam have seven unanswered visit requests each.

Rights groups thought they had a chance to keep Saudi Arabia off the council because it was originally one of five candidates for four seats allotted to the Asia-Pacific region, which encompasses the Middle East. But then Jordan withdrew its candidacy, leaving Saudi Arabia with no competition. Rights groups say their pressure and lobbying have been instrumental in defeating or forcing the withdrawal of past council candidates such as Belarus, Iran, and Syria.

China is also a top target of human rights activists, though defeating China would be particularly difficult, given that it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, UN analysts say.

“To allow China to become a member is to allow a wolf to take care of the sheep,” Rebiya Kadeer, a prominent Uighur activist, said Tuesday at a New York panel discussion of the council election.

The United Sates, which is a member of the council until 2015, has criticized the human-rights records of a number of this year’s candidates – including China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Cuba – but has not openly campaigned in New York to defeat those or other candidates.

During the Bush administration and after the council’s creation in 2006, the US vocally opposed the election of rights abusers to the council.

Last month, at a review of council candidates in Geneva, the US did express some qualms about some of the countries on the list, including China and Saudi Arabia.

“We’re concerned that China suppresses freedoms of assembly, association, religion, and expression,” Uzra Zeya, the acting assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, said at the review. China “harasses, detains, and punishes activists,… targets rights defenders’ family members and friends, and implements policies that undermine the human rights of ethnic minorities.”

As for Saudi Arabia, the US said it was “very concerned that Saudi citizens have been harassed, targeted, detained, and punished for simply expressing their beliefs, opinions, and views.”

But the assessment, which also noted bright spots in the Saudi kingdom’s record, suggested the US would not outwardly oppose Saudi Arabia’s council candidacy. It heralded Saudi Arabia “allowing” women to vote and run in 2015 municipal elections, criminalizing domestic abuse, and “improving protections” for domestic workers.  

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