Assessing the 2012 UN Human Rights Council Elections: One-Third of Candidates Unqualified for Membership



By Sarah Trister
Manager of Congressional Affairs

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Executive Summary

The United Nations General Assembly is scheduled on November 12 to vote on 18 new members of the 47-member UN Human Rights Council (HRC).  According to the Council’s founding resolution (60/251), Council members are expected to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights,” and the election of new members “shall take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments thereto.”  Freedom House’s assessment of the domestic human rights standards of the candidate countries and their voting records on UN resolutions related to human rights indicates that one-third of the candidates fail to meet the United Nations’ own criteria for election to the Human Rights Council.

Freedom House does not recommend seven candidate countries—Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela—for Council membership.  In addition, the qualifications of three other countries—Brazil, Kenya, and Sierra Leone—are questionable.

There are enough countries with strong human rights records to fill all of the vacant seats on the Human Rights Council.  The United Nations thus is still in a position to ensure that all new Council members meet its criteria for membership.

Elections to the UN Human Rights Council

On the Human Rights Council, as in other UN bodies, a proportional number of seats have been assigned to each regional group based on population, and countries are only able to serve two consecutive three-year terms.  African States are allotted 13 seats; Asian States, 13 seats; Eastern European States, 6 seats; Latin American and Caribbean States, 8 seats; and Western European and Other States, 7 seats.  Each of these regional groups has enough countries rated “free” by Freedom House to fill all of the vacant seats on the council. However, the high proportion of seats allocated to regions where countries with poor human rights records outnumber free countries, combined with the expense of maintaining an embassy in Geneva, often significantly limits the number of rights-respecting countries that declare candidacy each year.  One-third of the countries on the 2012 slate are unqualified candidates based on the HRC’s own criteria.

In this year’s election, only one regional group, the Western Europe and Other States Group, will run a competitive slate, with five countries running for three seats.  All other regional groups will run a “clean slate,” meaning that each candidate will run unopposed and is virtually guaranteed a seat on the Council unless member states take a principled stance.  If these other regional groups ran competitive slates, they would discourage candidacies from countries with poor human rights records and give UN General Assembly members a real choice in the selection of Council members.

Candidates must receive an absolute majority in the General Assembly, 97 votes, to win a seat on the Council.  UN member states thus have the power to prevent countries with poor human rights records from joining the Human Rights Council.  However, no country running unopposed has ever failed to garner the required 97 votes, including known human rights abusers such as Cuba, Libya, and Saudi Arabia.

Current Candidates

Of the 20 candidates for the Council during this election, 11 are ranked Free, 4 are ranked Partly Free, and 5 are ranked Not Free in Freedom in the World.  With only a little more than half of the candidates garnering Free rankings, regional groups are not putting up the most qualified candidates.  The current candidate slates represent a significant step backward as compared to the 2011 elections, when only one candidate was ranked Not Free.  Regional groups clearly are not heeding calls for better candidates and competitive slates.

Three countries—Brazil, Kenya, and Sierra Leone—have questionable qualifications for Council membership because of their human rights records and their voting record at the General Assembly.  Brazil is Latin America’s largest democracy but has been hesitant to demonstrate leadership on human rights issues at the United Nations, with a history of abstaining from key votes.  Kenya and Sierra Leone are rated Partly Free in Freedom in the World and have poor voting records at the General Assembly.  All three of these countries have the potential to be committed and useful members of the Council, but it is unclear at this point whether they would step up to the challenge.

There are four Partly Free countries running for election. While the qualifications of Kenya and Sierra Leone are questionable, the other two—Pakistan and Venezuela—are not recommended for Council membership.  The Partly Free category in Freedom in the World covers a significant range, and Kenya and Sierra Leone have higher ratings for political rights and civil liberties than Pakistan and Venezuela.[1]  The governments of both Pakistan and Venezuela have serious deficiencies in their standards for human rights at home, which are explained in greater detail in the next section.  All four states have poor voting records at the General Assembly, but Kenya and Sierra Leone utilize abstentions frequently, while Pakistan and Venezuela often vote against individual country resolutions and in support of resolutions that curtail freedoms. Moreover, Pakistan has been the leading proponent of the controversial “defamation of religions” resolution at the General Assembly, past iterations of which would seriously curtail free speech.

Freedom House does not recommend seven (37%) of the candidates.  Based on Freedom House’s evaluation, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela fail to meet the United Nations’ criteria for membership on the Human Rights Council.  These countries have not demonstrated sufficient respect for human rights at home or willingness to support UN measures to protect human rights elsewhere.

The Africa and Asia groups in particular are running slates with a disproportionate number of questionable or not recommended candidates.  The African slate does not include any Free countries; countries such as Ghana, Namibia, and South Africa–all ranked Free—are eligible for membership but have declined to run.  In the Asia group, the largest Free countries eligible to run, Japan and South Korea, are doing so.  However, there are 11 Free countries eligible that are not putting themselves up for candidacy, which leaves the Not Free countries Kazakhstan and the UAE on the slate (in addition to Pakistan).

Unless more Free countries put themselves forward, and all regional groups run competitive slates, the candidate slates will continue to fall short of the United Nations’ criteria for Human Rights Council membership.  The Council needs qualified candidates for all its seats in order to live up to its mandate to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”

 

Summary of Recommendations


Candidates from the African Group (5 vacant seats)
To replace Cameroon, Djibouti, Mauritius, Nigeria, and Senegal


To join Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Congo, Libya, Mauritania, and Uganda on the Council

 

Candidates from the Asia-Pacific Group (5 Vacant Seats)
To replace Bangladesh, China, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, and Saudi Arabia
 


To join India, Indonesia, Kuwait, Malaysia, Maldives, Qatar, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand on the Council

 

Candidates from the Eastern European Group (2 Vacant Seats)
To replace Russia and Hungary


To join the Czech Republic, Poland, Moldova, and Romania on the Council

 

Candidates from the Latin American and Caribbean States (3 Vacant Seats)
To replace Cuba, Mexico, and Uruguay


To join Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Peru on the Council


Candidates from the Western European & Other States Group (3 Vacant Seats)
To replace Belgium, Norway, and the United States


To join Austria, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland on the Council


Methodology

To evaluate the qualifications of each candidate, Freedom House focused on the following:

  • The level of each country’s human rights standards, as measured by political rights and civil liberties ratings in Freedom in the World 2012, and as summarized in country rankings of Free, Partly Free, or Not Free.
  • Each country’s voting record on relevant UN General Assembly votes in 2011-2012, particularly the following votes in favor of resolutions to address gross human rights violations in individual countries:
    • February 2012 Resolution condemning human rights violations in Syria (A/Res/66/253 A). 
    • December 2011 Resolution on the situation of human rights in Syria (A/RES/66/176)
    • December 2011 Resolution on the situation of human rights in Iran. (A/RES/66/175)
    • December 2011 Resolution on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. (A/RES/66/174)
  • Votes against U.N. General Assembly resolutions that would curtail human rights or contradict internationally accepted human rights norms:
    • December 2011 Resolution on globalization and its impact on the full enjoyment of all human rights.  (A/RES/66/161) This resolution implies that developing countries are less equipped to protect human rights due to economic circumstances and thus can serve as an excuse for governments to avoid blame for deficiencies in their human rights records or to water down human rights standards.
    • December 2011 motion of no action on the draft resolution on the situation of human rights in Iran.
    • December 2011 Resolution on global efforts for the total elimination of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, and the comprehensive implementation of and follow-up to the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.   (A/RES/66/144) This resolution calls upon states to limit free speech related to racial superiority and national, religious, or racial discrimination. Some of the language in this resolution goes beyond the admirable goals of preventing racial violence and discrimination and would curtail the freedom of expression.
       

Country Summaries for Questionable and Not Recommended Countries

Questionable

Brazil


Human Rights Record
Brazil is ranked Free in Freedom in the World 2012, with a score of 2 for both Political Rights and Civil Liberties.  Brazil has been ruled by an elected civilian government since 1985.  Current President Dilma Rousseff’s anti-corruption campaign has made progress in combating the widespread and, until recently, widely accepted corruption at all levels of government.  Additionally, in 2012 the government launched a national truth commission, which will investigate serious human rights violations committed during the period 1964 through 1988.  Freedom of speech is generally respected in Brazil, with both libel and slander decriminalized in 2009.  However, journalists – especially those who cover organized crime, corruption, or military-era human rights violations – are frequently targets of violence.  Moreover, the judicial branch remains active in preventing the media from covering specific stories, often involving politicians.  The freedoms of association and assembly are generally respected, as is the right to strike.  Corruption and violence remain entrenched problems in Brazil’s police forces, where torture is used systemically to extract confessions and extrajudicial killings are portrayed as shootouts with dangerous criminals.

UN Voting Record
Despite its position as the largest democracy in the Latin America region, Brazil has a mixed voting record at the UN General Assembly.   While it supported resolutions condemning human rights violations in Syria and North Korea, it abstained on two votes on Iran.  Additionally, it voted yes on the resolutions on globalization and the Durban conference.


Kenya

Human Rights Record
Kenya is ranked Partly Free in Freedom in the World 2012, with a score of 4 for Political Rights and 3 for Civil Liberties.  Kenya is not an electoral democracy as measured in Freedom in the World.  Presidential elections in December 2007 featured vote rigging and other manipulations that favored incumbent Mwai Kibaki.  Violence following the questionable election led to a power-sharing agreement between Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga and a constitutional referendum in August 2010.  New presidential elections are scheduled for March 2013.  In December 2011, six high-profile Kenyans, including Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, were indicted at the International Criminal Court as the chief organizers of the post-election violence.  While the six have appeared in The Hague after summonses were issued, the Kenyan government and African Union have been lobbying for the charges to be dropped.  Protections for freedom of expression and freedom of assembly were strengthened in the constitutional referendum.  However, in practice both are restricted by the government in certain cases.  Corruption remains common in the judiciary and at all levels of government.  The Kenyan government has done little to curb the recent spate of violence against Christians. Last month, Christian groups filed a lawsuit in court against the government for its negligence in responding to recent grenade attacks against eight Christian churches.

UN Voting Record
Kenya has a poor voting record in the UN General Assembly, often abstaining from votes criticizing human rights abusers, as it did on resolutions condemning abuses in Syria, Iran, and North Korea in 2011.  Kenya supported the resolutions on globalization and the Durban conference.


Sierra Leone

Human Rights Record
Sierra Leone is an electoral democracy, ranking Partly Free as measured in Freedom in the World 2012 with both political rights and civil liberties scores of 3. Freedom of speech and the press are constitutionally guaranteed, but they are occasionally restricted.  Freedoms of assembly and association are generally respected; however, police used force to break up demonstrations in September 2011, and the government banned all political demonstrations from September to December 2011 in the wake of protests.  The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), a hybrid international and domestic war crimes tribunal, has been working since 2004 to convict those responsible for large-scale human rights abuses perpetrated during the civil war that lasted from 1992 to 2002.  In April 2012, the SCSL convicted former Liberian President Charles Taylor of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

UN Voting Record
Sierra Leone has a poor voting record at the UN General Assembly.  While it supported resolutions on Syria and North Korea, it has a habit of abstaining or being absent from other country-specific votes including the February 2012 resolution on Syria and two motions on Iran.  Sierra Leone supported the resolution on globalization and the Durban resolution.


Not Recommended


Côte d’Ivoire

Human Rights Record
Côte d’Ivoire is ranked Not Free in Freedom in the World 2012, with a score of 6 for both political rights and civil liberties.  Côte d’Ivoire is recovering from a period of protracted violence that followed presidential elections at the end of 2010, when incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to give up power to election winner Alassane Ouattara.  Gbagbo was finally arrested in March 2011 after months of fighting and human rights abuses committed by both sides.  Outtara’s government has instituted a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and has agreed to allow the International Criminal Court to investigate crimes committed.  Gbagbo has been transferred to The Hague to face charges of crimes against humanity.  Press freedom is generally not respected in Côte d’Ivoire, and violence against journalists increased during 2011 with both sides targeting journalists who criticized them.  The constitution protects the right to free assembly but it is often denied in practice.  The judiciary is not independent, with judges who are political appointees and highly susceptible to external interference and bribes.

UN Voting Record
Côte d’Ivoire has a mixed voting record at the U.N. General Assembly.  While it supported resolutions on Syria and North Korea, it abstained on the resolution on Iran and voted yes on the globalization resolution and the Durban resolution.


Ethiopia

Human Rights Record
Ethiopia is ranked Not Free in Freedom in the World 2012, with a score of 6 for both political rights and civil liberties.  Political life in Ethiopia is dominated by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which was led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi from 1995 until his death in August 2012. May 2011 federal and regional elections were tightly controlled by the EPRDF; voters were threatened if they did not support the ruling party, and opposition meetings were broken up while leaders were threatened or detained.  The EPRDF routinely utilizes the country’s anti-terrorism laws to target opposition leaders and the media.  Parliament has declared much of the opposition to be terrorist groups and has targeted journalists who cover any opposition activity.  Media is dominated by state-owned broadcasters and government-oriented newspapers.  A 2009 law greatly restricts NGO activity in the country by prohibiting work in the area of human and political rights and limiting the amount of international funding any organization may receive.  This law has neutered the NGO sector in the country.  The judiciary is independent in name only, with judgments that rarely deviate from government policy.

UN Voting Record
Ethiopia has a poor voting record at the UN General Assembly, abstaining or skipping most country-specific votes, with the exception of its support for the February 2012 Syria Resolution.  Ethiopia supported the globalization resolution and the Durban resolution.


Gabon

Human Rights Record
Gabon is ranked Not Free in Freedom in the World with a score of 6 for Political Rights and 5 for Civil Liberties.  Gabon is not an electoral democracy as measured in Freedom in the World.  The 2009 presidential election was marred by irregularities, including allegations of vote rigging and intimidation of the press.  The 2011 legislative elections were boycotted by the opposition.  Freedom to form and join political parties is generally respected, but civil servants face harassment and discrimination if they affiliate with opposition groups.  The ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) has been in power continuously since 1968.  Corruption is widespread, and rampant graft prevents the country’s significant natural resource revenue from benefitting most citizens.  Press freedom is restricted, as the state has the power to criminalize civil libel suits and journalists often face legal cases arising from their work.  The rights of assembly and association are legally guaranteed but not always respected in practice.  It remains difficult for NGOs to practice freely; in 2008, 22 groups were suspended for a week by the interior minister after they issued a statement criticizing the government.

UN Voting Record
Gabon has a poor voting record at the UN General Assembly.  The country is often absent or abstains from important country-specific resolutions, including votes on Iran and Syria in 2011 and 2012.  Gabon did, however, support the resolution condemning human rights violations in North Korea in 2011.  Gabon supported the globalization and Durban resolutions in 2011.


Kazakhstan

Human Rights Record
Kazakhstan is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World with a score of 6 for Political Rights and 5 for Civil Liberties.  Kazakhstan is not an electoral democracy as measured in Freedom in the World.  Longtime President Nursultan Nazarbayev won a new five-year term in April 2011 in a widely criticized election in which all major opponents were disqualified.  Legislative elections in January 2012 were likewise deemed illegitimate by the international community due to opposition suppression and voter fraud.  The constitution grants the president considerable control over the legislature, the judiciary, and local governments.  The government consistently harasses or shuts down independent media outlets.  Libel is a criminal offense, and the criminal code prohibits insulting the president; self-censorship is common.  During an extended workers strike at the end of 2011, 16 people were killed by police; authorities used special powers to detain journalists, and the government shut down access to social media outlets, local Internet providers, and some independent news outlets.  In June 2011, at least 28 ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks who had been denied asylum were repatriated to Uzbekistan despite warnings from human rights organizations that they could face unfair trials and torture. A leading opposition figure was recently given a 7.5 year sentence in a deeply politicized process that lacked even the minimum procedural guarantees required for a fair trial, in disregard of Kazakhstan’s international obligations and OSCE commitments. Religious freedom is constrained, including by the introduction of a new repressive law requiring re-registration of all religious organizations in the country.

UN Voting Record
Kazakhstan has a mixed voting record at the UN General Assembly.  While it supported resolutions condemning human rights violations by the Syrian and North Korean regimes, it did not support resolutions on Iran.  Kazakhstan voted in support of the globalization and Durban resolutions.


Pakistan

Human Rights Record
Pakistan is ranked Partly Free in Freedom in the World with a rating of 4 for Political Rights and 5 for Civil Liberties.  Pakistan is not an electoral democracy as rated in Freedom in the World.  A civilian government and president were elected in 2008, ending eight years of military rule, but the military continues to exercise de facto control over many areas of government policy, and the political environment is troubled by corruption, partisan clashes, and Islamist militancy, among other problems.  Pakistan has a vibrant press; however, high-level figures, including from the military and judiciary, attempt to silence critical reporting, and there is a high level of violence against journalists, with at least seven journalists murdered because of their work in 2011, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Pakistan is an Islamist Republic, and there are numerous legal restrictions on religious freedom.  Violations of blasphemy laws can draw harsh sentences, including the death penalty, and critics of the laws are often targeted.  In 2011, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minorities affairs, were both assassinated because of their outspoken criticism of blasphemy laws.  The blasphemy law continues to be manipulated to fulfill personal grudges, rendering hundreds of individuals imprisoned each year for long terms before ever being charged with a crime. An even larger number of individuals, who have been accused of blasphemy but never imprisoned, are under direct threat from civilian militants. Many of these individuals will be killed because local police have repeatedly failed to properly address security concerns for alleged blasphemers.

The judiciary consists of civil and criminal courts and a special Sharia Court for certain offenses.  The Sharia Court enforces the 1979 Hudood Ordinances, which criminalize extramarital sex, alcohol, gambling, and property offenses.  Islamist militants’ expanding influence over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Kyber-Pakhtunkhwa has led to severe restrictions on local inhabitants’ dress, social behavior, educational opportunities, and legal rights.  Throughout the country, traditional norms, discriminatory laws, and weak policing contribute to a high incidence of rape, domestic abuse, and other forms of violence – including acid attacks – against women.  Most interfaith marriages are considered illegal, and children of such unions are deemed illegitimate.

UN Voting Record
Pakistan has a poor voting record at the UN General Assembly. It opposed or abstained on votes on resolutions criticizing human rights violations by the Syrian, Iranian, and North Korean regimes in 2011, although it supported the resolution on Syria in 2012.  Pakistan supported the globalization and Durban resolutions.


United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is ranked Not Free in Freedom in the World with a rating of 6 in both Political Rights and Civil Liberties.  The UAE is not an electoral democracy as evaluated in Freedom in the World. All decisions about political leadership rest with the dynastic rulers of the seven emirates, who form the Federal Supreme Council, the highest executive and legislative body in the country.  There are no political parties in the country, and the allocation of government positions is determined largely by tribal loyalties and economic power. The government has historically restricted the freedom of expression with a 1980 law prohibiting all “defamatory material and negative material about presidents, friendly countries, [and] religious issues.”  The government bans a variety of publications and Internet websites and prohibits most small businesses and individuals from using secure and encrypted email and Internet settings on their mobile phones, allowing authorities access to most private correspondence.  The government places restrictions on freedom of assembly and association, and public meetings require government permits.  NGOs must register with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.  In April 2012, the UAE shut down the offices of the National Democratic Institute and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation due to what the government said were licensing issues.  In March 2011, more than 130 intellectuals and activists signed a petition calling for political reforms.  Subsequently, five of the country’s most outspoken reform activists were arrested and convicted of insulting the country’s leaders, though they were pardoned by the president in November 2011.

UN Voting Record
The United Arab Emirates has a mixed voting record at the U.N. General Assembly.  While it supported resolutions on Syria and North Korean human rights violations, it did not support votes condemning violations by Iran.  The UAE supported the globalization and Durban resolutions.


Venezuela

Human Rights Record
Venezuela is ranked Partly Free in Freedom in the World with a score of 5 for both Political Rights and Civil Liberties.  Venezuela is not an electoral democracy as measured in Freedom in the World. While the act of voting is relatively free and the count is fair, the political playing field favors government-backed candidates, and the separation of powers is nearly nonexistent.  President Hugo Chavez has been in power since 1998 and has consistently consolidated power in the hands of the presidency since then.  In October 2012, he won a new six-year term with 54% of the vote, a much narrower margin than in past elections.  A referendum abolished term limits in 2009, and a slate of laws passed before the close of the Chavez-leaning legislature at the end of 2010 included highly controversial regulations controlling the Internet, funding for civil society groups, education, and more.  Although freedom of the press is guaranteed by the constitution, the media climate is permeated by intimidation, sometimes including physical attacks, and strong anti-media rhetoric by the government is common.  The government has authority to control radio and television content, but there are opposition-oriented outlets, though their share of the media has declined in recent years.

UN Voting Record
Venezuela has a poor voting record at the UN General Assembly.  It consistently votes against resolutions criticizing human rights abuses by individual countries, including resolutions on Syria, Iran, and North Korea in 2011 and 2012.  Venezuela supported the globalization and Durban resolutions.
 


[1] Freedom in the World ranking methodology: //www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world-2012/methodology
[2] Argentina is at the lower end of the range of countries recommended for membership in the UN Human Rights Council.  While the country was rated free for calendar year 2011, its government’s efforts to stifle independent media and alignment with repression countries on regional human rights issues raise questions about its commitment to human rights standards.

 

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