UNITED NATIONS – In a quiet but contentious campaign, countries are competing for new openings on the United Nation’s Human Rights Council. Many of the contenders for membership on the Geneva-based body include a political Who’s Who of authoritarian regimes that are noteworthy abusers of the very human rights they would be slated to protect.
Recalling the adage of the fox guarding the chicken coop, among the states competing for places include Cuba, China, Egypt, Russia, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia. These states, if elected, would be expected to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” in the international arena.
As is the custom in such international forums, countries vie for places in regional groupings.
In a news conference sponsored by the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), that group’s chief legal officer, Javier El-Hage, stated: “This year, five notorious dictatorships are running for re-election at the world’s top human rights body. By gaining these highly coveted seats, which they have consistently used to exercise a heckler’s veto, they seek to shield themselves from any significant exposure of their horrendous human rights records.”
Let’s take a look at the regions and the contenders and view their suitability through the prism of various human rights monitoring groups such as U.N. Watch and the Human Rights Foundation.
On the African continent, there are four countries running for four seats unopposed. Egypt, Rwanda, South Africa and Tunisia comprise the candidates. In the view of rights monitors both Egypt and Rwanda are listed as “not free” countries with authoritarian regimes that stifle press and political rights. Both are deemed “unqualified” by the rights watchdogs. South Africa and Tunisia, while viewed as “flawed democracies” by the Economist and having a “partly free” media, are called “questionable” candidates for the council.
In Asia, there are five candidates for four seats. Four of the five are deemed “unqualified” by the rights monitors; China, Iraq, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. Both China and Saudi Arabia represent authoritarian regimes that stifle media freedoms and human rights. Iraq and Malaysia are labeled “flawed democracies” by the Economist with their press facing a “difficult situation.” All four countries are described as “unqualified” for membership.
The Asian group illustrates some of the most egregious offenders. Yang Jianli, a survivor of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and a former political prisoner, suggested that “electing China to the Human Rights Council is like picking the fox to guard the hen house, while he was still wiping feathers off his mouth from his last meal.” Yang urged democracies such as the United States, Canada and France to gather and “openly cast a ‘no’ vote” on China’s candidacy. “If every democracy says ‘no,’ China would have no chance.”
In the Asian group, only Japan, the fifth candidate, remains a free country.
In Latin America, there are three countries running for two seats. Brazil, despite being a flawed democracy, and Guatemala, a political hybrid, remain qualified for the council. Cuba, already holding a seat, is unqualified to continue to do so.
Maria Werlau, executive director of the Cuba Archive, opined: “The Castro military dictatorship, in power for over 57 years, has from the start systematically committed wide-ranging crimes against humanity and consistently demonstrated its contempt for human life.” Werlau concedes that “Cuba is a gigantic manufacturer of perceptions with a huge and well-oiled propaganda machinery of worldwide reach.”
For Western Europe and other parts of the world, both the U.S. and Britain are projected to fill two seats. Both are free countries with a free media and are qualified to serve, though outnumbered, on the Human Rights Council.
From Eastern Europe, three countries are competing for two seats.
Both Croatia and Hungary are listed as “free” by the Freedom House ratings, though there are “noticeable problems” in the media arena. HRF states both countries are qualified for membership on the council. Importantly, both Croatia and Hungary are members of the European Union and NATO.
The third country competing is Russia. The Putin government’s continued regression on political rights and freedom is well documented; equally Moscow’s aggression in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia, as well as threats to the Baltic states’ sovereignty, puts Russia in the unqualified category for membership.
Elections for the new council seats are held Oct. 28. Clearly Western democracies could play political hardball to isolate or derail some of the rights offenders. But will they dare to do so?
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of “Divided Dynamism, the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China.”
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