International Law

Should Nations Be Denied U.N. Human Rights Council Membership?

No matter who wins U.N. General Assembly vote for the 18 seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), there will be critics who contend that certain member states are unfit to serve because of their systematic violation of human rights and disrespect for the rule of law.

Many find that United States, Germany, and other Western nations are fit to serve. Yet there are critics who claim that the United States, for example, is disqualified because of the Gitmo detention center and killings by Predator drones without due process of law.

To be sure, other than the representatives of the countries themselves, nations like the Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela are nearly universally condemned for their poor human rights records and tendency to use the rule of law as a weapon to silence dissent.

When voting on UNHRC membership, the U.N. General Assembly is supposed to consider "the candidate States' contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments in this regard." Clearly this mandate is not being followed when membership includes regimes that routinely oppress instead of protect human rights.

One of the key flaws in UNHRC membership is apportionment by geographical region:

  • African States: 13 seats
  • Asian States: 13 seats
  • Latin American and Caribbean States: 8 seats
  • Western European and other States: 7 seats
  • Eastern European States: 6 seats

Although it makes sense to have representation from each of these geographic regions, as a practical matter there are areas of the world where membership minimums cannot be obtained without turning a blind eye to candidates' human rights abuses.

It's important to note that UNHRC membership awarded to nations that violate human rights does not have a history of encouraging those countries to respect the rule of law and protect their citizens from abuse. Instead, such regimes use UNHRC membership as a publicity fig leaf to evade responsibility for human rights violations.

The time is now for the United Nations to make substantive reforms to the UNHRC to ensure that its members truly contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights. This includes:

1.      Replacing the 47-member equitable apportionment status quo with a 10-member council represented by 2 members from each of the 5 geographic regions.

2.      Setting clear human rights standards for council membership and applying those standards when voting on members.

3.      Implementing an effective mechanism for suspending or removing a council member who violates human rights.

When it comes to human rights and the rule of law, the first priority of the UNHRC should be to do no harm. Denying council membership to those who systematically violate human rights and disrespect the rule of law is a good step in that direction.

Recommended Reading

Human Rights Violators to Join UN Rights Council; US May Lose, Arutz Sheva (Nov. 12, 2012)

US in Tough Contest for Human Rights Council Seat, ABC News (Nov. 12, 2012)

US, biggest violator of human rights: Analyst, Press TV (Nov. 12, 2012)

Germany eyes seat on Human Rights Council, Deutsche Welle (Nov. 11, 2012)

U.S. not competent to be reelected to UN Human Rights Council: Iran, Tehran Times (Nov. 10, 2012)