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The UN Human Rights Council Struggles to Preserve its Legitimacy


On March 3rd, China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Russia took their seats for a second term in the Human Rights Council, the United Nation’s body charged with monitoring and enforcing international human rights standards. The four countries have been accused of constantly violating those standards, and restricting civil liberties. Their presence on the Council has attracted the strong opposition of some non governmental human rights organizations. Rachel Vianna reports on the so-far unsuccessful campaign to remove them from a position of leadership at the Council.


The presence on the Human Rights Council of governments which are accused of violating their citizens human rights creates a situation that some observers would describe as ironic.

ALEX GLADSTEIN: Mentioning human rights violations and describing their governments as authoritarian is not allowed at the human rights council.

Alex Gladstein with the Human Rights Foundation, uses as an example the testimony in July 2012 by his organization’s president Thor Halvorssen. Halvorssen makes a case against the countries’ re-election to the Council.

THOR HALVORSSEN: This December, four authoritarian governments, China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Russia will step down. You have a golden opportunity to…

VICE PRESIDENT OF HRC: Time is up! Cuba, you have the floor.

Chairing the meeting is Ms. Gulnara Iskakova. She is from Kyrgyzstan, and aligned herself with Cuba’s outrage at being called authoritarian.

CUBA REPRESENTATIVE: Thank you, Vice President. This is how it should occur. We would like to ask the NGO through yourself, Madam Vice President, that they abstain from using disrespectful terms such as authoritarian regimes. We do not recognize this NGO but we will not permit them to use this kind of language in this forum.

Russia seconded Cuba’s plight, and China demanded that Mr. Halvorssen be prohibited from continuing his presentation. As Mr. Halvorssen feared, those countries won the election once again. And earlier this year, they were back in their seats.

Yasmine Ergas, a policy analyst and scholar at Columbia University, worries that entrusting human rights violators with the high level of responsibility required by the Council, may delegitimize the institution.

YASMINE ERGAS: I worry about the fact that this gives states that are systematic violators of human rights, power to determine outcomes to respect to other states. And in doing that they may well be inclined to take positions that white wash their own positions or that reflect their system of alliances.

The Human Rights Council was established in 2006 to replace the former Commission on Human Rights. The members of the Council are elected by a vote in the UN General Assembly. Out of 193 nations, 176 voted in favor of Russia and China, 140 voted for Saudi Arabia and 148 for Cuba.

But Rolando Gomez, a spokesman for the Council, says that having this countries in the Council can be a good thing. He believes they are more likely to be put in the spotlight, making it easier to hold them accountable for their potential crimes.

ROLANDO GOMEZ: They’re in the main seats, they are in, in that they take decisions but it’s not only the members who actually inform these discussions, there are others who also play key roles, including non-governmental organizations.

Yasmine Ergas says even though the Council does not have the power to directly enforce agreements, the organization still exercises a great level of pressure and persuasion.

But some NGOs believe that certain countries are being given the chance to reign over the very commission established to prosecute them.

HILLEL NEUER: If you’re a victim sitting in prison in China or in Russia or in Cuba. Or if you’re a dissident or human rights activist in one of those countries and you see the UN made your repressor into champion of human rights, that’s a kick in the stomach.

Shortly after the new members took their seats this March, UN Watch launched an international campaign to remove the four violators from the Council.

HILLEL NEUER: We know that the odds against us are enormous but it’s the right thing to do. It’s built into the Council’s charter that gross and systematic violators can be removed. And that’s there for a reason. And we believe someone has to speak out and we’re not afraid to do it.

The petition is backed by 20 other human rights NGOs around the world. But so far, not a single government has supported this campaign.

Rachel Vianna, Columbia Radio News.


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