Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Russia Loses its Seat on the UN Human Rights Council

The following is a guest post from Clint Rudd, a third-year law student at SIU School of Law:

This past Friday, October 28, 2016, the United Nations General Assembly elected, by secret ballot, 14 Member States to serve on the Human Rights Council.  As a result of this election, Russia, and 13 other States lost their seat.  Of the 14 Members leaving the Human Rights Council, only Maldives was ineligible for another term because it had already served two consecutive terms.

The Human Rights Council was created in March, 2006, by General Assembly Resolution 60/251, for the purpose of “strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and mak[ing] recommendations on them.”  More specifically, the Council “serves as the main United Nations forum for intergovernmental cooperation and dialogue on human rights issues,” by helping States meet their human rights obligations; making recommendations to the General Assembly for international law development; and periodically reviewing compliance of Member States.  The Council is comprised of 47 Member States elected by the General Assembly.  Each Member serves a three-year term and is not eligible for re-election after serving two consecutive terms. Council seats are allocated based on geographical distribution as follows:  13 African States; 13 Asia-Pacific States; 6 Eastern European States; 8 Latin American and Caribbean States; and 7 Western European and Other States.  

Because of the role the Human Rights Council is purported to play, most individuals believe that States represented at the Council should conduct themselves in accordance with human rights.  Human rights organizations believe that countries sitting on the Human Rights Council, like Russia, China, Rwanda, and Saudi Arabia, undermine the Council’s credibility and prevent the Council from acting effectively.  Russia and Saudi Arabia are among two States that have been accused of war crimes due to actions in Syria.  Because of this, groups such as Human Rights Watch and others (including more than 80 human rights and international aid organizations) attempted to block Russia’s election to the Council.  For Eastern European States, two seats were open.  Russia lost to Hungary and Croatia.  For the Asia-Pacific States, however, four seats were open.  China, Japan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia were elected over Malaysia, Fiji, and Iran. 

According to the United Nations Director at Human Rights Watch, Louis Charbonneau, “The UN Human Rights Council’s ability to successfully expose and hold violators to account is under threat because a number of countries use it to thwart attempts to expose their own crimes and abuses . . . Saudi Arabia and Russia don’t honor the ideals that underpin the UN Human Rights Council.”  For the past year, Russia has carried out airstrikes in support of the Syrian government.  These airstrikes are not confined to military installations, and wound and kill civilians.  Furthermore, Russia uses internationally banned cluster munitions and incendiary weapons in populated areas of Syria.  Russia also sought a veto to a cease-fire after the siege in Aleppo, Syria.

Paragraph 9 of the UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251 Human Rights Council states “that members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights, [and] shall fully cooperate with the Council.”  The initial premise of most that Council Members should conduct themselves accordingly is valid.  As long as Russia continues targeting indiscriminately and opting for military action in lieu of negotiation, it is very difficult for Russia to claim, as a Human Rights Council Member, that they “uphold the highest standards in the promotion of human rights.” 

Charbonneau is asking UN Member States to “raise the bar” on Council membership.  He states, “If the council is to be a credible instrument for exposing and ending human rights abuses worldwide, regional groups need to ensure healthy competition and qualified candidates for every seat, instead of cutting backroom deals.  Otherwise, the council risks becoming a rogues’ gallery for the worst rights violators.”  Maybe the General Assembly is starting to listen.


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