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Baroness Falkner of Margravine writes on the serious issue of UN Human Rights Council Elections

What do Burundi, China, Egypt, Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Venezuela have in common? Each of them languishes at the bottom of every credible human rights index available, of course. But, more alarmingly, each of them sits on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Next year, Qatar will join them, becoming one of only 47 states to enjoy the privilege of sitting on the UN body tasked above all others with protecting basic human dignity. The list of charges against each of these nations do not need repeating. It is enough to say that their presence on the Council, which stands to protect the freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, raises profound questions about the efficacy of the whole system. Put simply: if states are not concerned with protecting human rights at home, why should they be expected to enforce them internationally?

The task of the Human Rights Council is, on paper, quite clear: as the UN’s principal human rights body it is there to defend the most fundamental rights of us all, wherever we are. As such, the standard for membership should be a simple one: “would you trust that state with your rights?” The unfortunate reality is that many of the membership are not motivated by a commitment to advancing human rights, but to evade scrutiny by being ‘elected’ to the body that should be sanctioning them. This is done through gaming the system: this year alone, only one of the five regional blocs through which seats are allocated has more candidates than seats. If you go forward in an uncontested election, you win the seat.  Your allies in your region stand down as they are part of the game.  Ultimately, the consequences of this are most keenly felt by those who have no other institution to defend their rights.

If the problem is clear then so too is the solution – genuinely competitive elections. Every year, one third of the councils are elected in what should be a chance for states to make a positive case that they should be entrusted with a position of leadership in the human rights sphere. Instead, too often, back-room deals and closed slates ensure that states simply walk onto the council. In October, 157 different Congolese NGOs signed a public letter calling for Congo not to be elected to the Council in part because of the government’s well-documented involvement in the deaths of thousands and the displacement of 1.4 million in Kasai. As the Democratic Republic of Congo is running on a closed slate, their election to the Council was never really in doubt even though they haven’t deigned to make any kind of public pledge, setting out their human rights commitments or promises. If another country within the Africa Group had run, then, at the very least, these elections would have provided an opportunity for civil society to hold the candidates to account, but also provided reformist elements within right-violators to make a case internally for the kind of concrete improvements that states profess to support.

Despite encouraging words in the concluding statement of the 35th Session of the Human Rights Council back in June, consistently uncompetitive elections demonstrate that this task cannot be left to governments alone. I firmly believe in the power of openness and accountability to achieve more than another round of UN institutional reform. The Human Rights Council is responsible for our rights and so it is up to us to step up and do something about its lamentable membership. As the UN edges towards its 75th anniversary, it is time for people around the world to reclaim it as an organisation for them, not just the states that claim to speak for them and in doing so, help the UN to live up to the high ideals it embodies.

Baroness Falkner is the Chair of the Five Rights Campaign, a grass-roots organisation aimed at promoting five core human rights, and campaigning for fair elections to the UN Human Rights Council.  http://fiverights.org



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