Successful UN Human Rights Council Elections Demonstrate UN Members are Taking Reform Effort Seriously
On May 9, 2006, the UN General Assembly elected a greatly improved membership to the newly established Human Rights Council. The results show that Member States have for the first time taken into consideration the human rights records of governments when electing members to the body.

May 9, 2006

On May 9, 2006, the UN General Assembly elected a greatly improved membership to the newly established Human Rights Council. The results show that Member States have for the first time taken into consideration the human rights records of governments when electing members to the body. The elections further demonstrate that UN members are taking this priority reform seriously and are working to strengthen the UN’s ability to promote and protect human rights. Nevertheless, this election is only the first step in this effort and the United States must remain fully engaged in order to ensure comprehensive reform of the Council.

For the first time, the General Assembly elected the 47 Council members directly and individually by secret ballot. Sixty-four candidates competed for the required 96 votes (an absolute majority of the General Assembly). The larger number of candidates than seats allotted assured a competitive election. For example, 10 countries in Latin America received more than 96 votes, but the eight with the highest votes gained membership, excluding Venezuela from the Council. Two run-off votes were needed to determine the Eastern European membership due to the large number of candidates competing for 6 seats, most being democracies with relatively good human rights records.

Out of the 47 members elected, 37 are members of the Community of Democracies. An additional five are observers of the Community of Democracies process. The membership includes a mix of advanced democracies with strong human rights records as well as transitional governments moving in the right direction that can benefit from membership on such a Council.

The African members elected are a clear indication that the Council is not the Commission under a new name. Former Commission members Zimbabwe, Sudan, Libya and Egypt were effectively dissuaded from seeking a seat on the Council. Similarly, former Commission members Syria and Viet Nam did not run for Asian seats. The new Council will not be burdened by these and other controversial and obstructive governments which overshadowed the former Commission’s contributions by using their membership to deflect attention from their deplorable human rights record.

The election results demonstrate that Member States voted for many candidates based on their merit, as instructed by the resolution that established the Council. Iran, a country with a troubling human rights record was successfully defeated in the first round of voting. (Please see Annex A for election results and Annex B for an explanation of how the reformed election process encouraged a positive outcome)

The overall improved membership will be better able to isolate and out-vote a smaller band of prominent countries with poor human rights records that were elected to the Council, including Russia, China, Cuba, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Further, vote tallies indicate that human rights records may have dampened support for China, Cuba, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which received fewer votes than the top candidates in their regions, despite their geopolitical influence.

Despite these achievements, the United States could have played a more constructive role in the Council’s establishment and elections, resulting in an even stronger Council. Instead the United States abdicated the historic leadership role it has played in establishing international forums to promote democracy and human rights. The U.S. Administration failed to engage constructively or effectively in the negotiations to establish the Council and then voted against the resolution, citing weaknesses.

U.S. tactics during the negotiations and its decision not to run for a seat undermined its ability to effectively campaign to defeat questionable candidates. Further, the United States sent mixed messages throughout the process. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton repeatedly asserted that all Security Council permanent members should serve on the Council, ignoring China and Russia’s domestic human rights record, history of voting against country-specific resolutions, and active role in weakening the Council during negotiations.

The United States should reclaim its leadership role to ensure the successful implementation of the Council. Council members will make many critical decisions during the first year including determining the agenda; whether country scrutiny will continue or be reshaped; whether the special procedures (working groups, thematic or country-specific special rapporteurs) will be maintained or reformed; the future of subsidiary bodies; the number and frequency of meetings; procedures for NGO participation; and how the mandated “universal periodic review” will work. The United States should continue financial support, appoint a fulltime permanent representative to the Council in Geneva, and seek observer status to influence these critical decisions that will be determined when the Council opens for business on June 19, 2006.

The Human Rights Council election demonstrates that UN reform can’t and won’t be achieved overnight, but far-reaching change can be achieved incrementally when governments commit to reform and leverage innovative diplomacy.

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