Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Human Rights Council Elections: Plus Ça Change

We've blogged before on the U.N. Human Rights Council, which replaced the discredited, politicized, and ineffectual U.N. Human Rights Commission. The latter institution traced its roots to the founding of the United Nations. The U.N. Charter created the Economic and Social Council, which itself was charged with establishing a commission for the promotion of human rights. The Commission developed a series of mechanisms to enforce human rights, but was beset by criticism of its "declining credibility and professionalism." Then Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed to eliminate the Commission, in part on the grounds that states sought membership not to strengthen human rights, but to protect themselves from criticism. Problems with institutional capture became particularly salient when Libya was elected Chair of the Commission and Sudan was given a seat in the midst of the crisis in Darfur.

With U.N. General Assembly Resolution 60/251, the new Human Rights Council replaced the Human Rights Commission. This development was heralded as a "dawn of a new era" in the protection and promotion of human rights. Most importantly, council membership was supposed to be based on a "club good" model. The Council was also supposed to engage in a rigorous peer-review process of states' human rights practices. Most accounts of teh new Council's actions suggest, however, that the initial optimism was misplaced.

This is certainly born out by the Council's recent elections. On May 21, 2008, the U.N. General Assembly elected 15 new Human Rights Council members for the 2008-11 term: Argentina, Bahrain, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Chile, France, Gabon, Ghana, Japan, Pakistan, Republic of Korea, Slovakia, Ukraine, United Kingdom and Zambia.

Only twenty countries were candidates, and only those states within the same U.N. regional group actually competed against each other for the available slots. Most groups seemed to have coordinated their candidates. So, the African Group had 4 countries vying for 4 available seats, and the Latin American and Caribbean Group had 3 countries vying for 3 available seats. Some competition existed within the Asian, Eastern European and "Western European & Others" groups.

The elections need not be entirely pre-determined notwithstanding these odds. In order to become a Council member, a country must receive the votes of at least 97 of the 192 General Assembly member states. According to Resolution 60/251, General Assembly members are supposed to elect Council by

tak[ing] into account the candidates’ contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto.
Council members can be suspended (by a 2/3 majority vote of the GA members present) if they fail to uphold the highest human rights standards.

Freedom House (logo, right) and U.N. Watch (logo, below left) had evaluated the candidate states using various indexes, such as Freedom House's annual survey of the state of political rights and civil liberties around the globe and The Economist's Democracy Index. These watchdog groups concluded that while many of the candidates were qualified, several were "questionable" (Brazil, East Timor & Burkina Faso) and others were outright "not qualified" (Bahrain, Gabon, Pakistan, Sri Lanka & Zambia).
You'll note that these latter designations did not appear to dissuade the General Assembly from appointing Brazil, Burkina Faso, Bahrain, Pakistan, Gabon & Zambia to the Council.

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