Human Rights Council Elections: Pander Time

11/15/2012 11:31 am ET | Updated Jan 15, 2013

By Jacob Mchangama and Aaron Rhodes

(Copenhagen and Hamburg) -- On Monday, 12 November 2012, 18 new members were elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, which the UN says is the forum "all victims of human rights abuses should be able to look to... as a springboard for action." But the election process was emblematic of the betrayal of core human rights principles in the face of challenges from authoritarian states, and the disintegration of the idea of human rights itself in the main institution charged with defending it.

The newly elected members include Pakistan, Venezuela and others with serious human rights deficits. A majority of the Council -- 24 of 47 members -- is now composed of states that are unfree or only partially free according to rankings by the nongovernmental organization Freedom House. None of the members from Africa are free, while three of five Asian members are only partially free. A majority of the Council are states from the "Global South."

Members of the "Western" group in the Council -- the only ones facing a competitive election -- pandered for support from the General Assembly in the run-up to the election, which saw the United States, Germany and Ireland elected by secret ballot.

In a last-minute campaign to secure its place on the Council, U.S. diplomats cited American support for human rights defenders, and success in advocating for a special rapporteur on human rights in Iran. They defended drone killings as "regrettable but not illegal," and emphasized U.S. activism on the rights of gays and lesbians, cited by UN experts as a primary basis for U.S. re-election.

Other Western candidates, in bids for support, in effect promised to avoid the subject of fundamental human rights if elected. In an effort to assuage anxieties about possible criticism for human rights violations, Germany promised a "non-confrontational" approach, and to be a "bridge-builder." German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, in a special campaign swing, assured members of the General Assembly that "developed countries do not have a monopoly on safeguarding human rights," a transparent ploy to ingratiate Germany with poor countries by suggesting that rich ones have no right to criticize others. In the event, every regional group elected unfree members to the Council except the Western Group, and as candidates in that group, aside from the U.S., sought to win by promises to appease, the future of the Council as a human rights forum is now darker even than before.

The German government's pledge to avoid confrontation on core human rights problems like torture and censorship was not enough to satisfy the director of the German Institute of Human Rights, Beate Rudolf, who found it "very vague." She expected the German government to focus on the rights of senior citizens as well as on the "extra-territorial application of fundamental rights" as regards military missions and transnational corporations, and the right to adequate housing, water and sanitation, which she called "fundamental rights."

Rudolf expects the Human Rights Council to act as an "early warning system" for the UN General Assembly, which makes sense given the tragic denial of human rights and freedoms afflicting citizens in an increasing number of states. But if Germany sticks to soft, consensual issues, as she and her Foreign Minister propose, Germany won't contribute to raising any alarms about individual human rights despite the policy of "concern" about "grave human rights violations" and victims posted on the Ministry website.

In fact, Germany's approach toward the Human Rights Council is consistent with those of other candidates. Sweden recently congratulated Sudan on its election to the UN Economic and Social Council, despite the fact that its president, Omar al-Bashir, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity; neither the U.S. not the EU spoke out about the matter, and Sudan was overwhelmingly elected to ECOSOC with the support of at least 10 EU members, according to the monitoring group UN Watch. In its own appeal for election to the Human Rights Council, Ireland's representatives spoke of its "style" in international fora -- another unsubtle integrity dump.

Germany and Ireland secured the votes to join the Council, and it is painfully clear that Western states are allowing themselves to be held hostage to dictatorships promoting a watered-down human rights doctrine. Non-free countries have been successful in focusing the work of the Council on issues such as foreign debt, cultural rights and climate change. While these issues are important, they have little do with human rights and do nothing to hold governments accountable for such crimes as extrajudicial killings, torture or the denial of the right to free speech or association. When liberal democracies legitimize the human rights cred of these deflective issues, the Human Rights Council will give victims even less of a voice than they have previously had.

To a limited extent, civil society groups can fill the gap, although those engaged in the UN human rights system also increasingly focus not on basic freedom rights but on "social justice" -- to the satisfaction of power-hungry governments (Amnesty International head Salil Shetty recently claimed that "The ultimate torture is poverty"). But dictatorships have taken virtual control of a committee in New York that awards consultative status to nongovernmental organizations, and are intent on keeping out critical groups.

The problem with the Human Rights Council is not simply one of power, corruption and political geography. It is a problem of shoddy discourse and weak legal reasoning as concerns human rights, which has led to the concept being infiltrated and swamped by dangerous equivocation fuelled by cynical dictatorships and a human rights movement that has lost its way by disowning the idea of freedom as central to human rights. If liberal democracies and civil society would speak clearly for human rights as freedom rather than pandering to freedom's enemies, they could begin to build an effective international human rights system.

Jacob Mchangama is Director of Legal Affairs at the Danish think-tank CEPOS, and an external lecturer in international human rights law at the University of Copenhagen. Aaron Rhodes was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (1993-2007) and helped found the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran in 2008. They are both co-founders of the Freedom Rights Project (www.freedomrights.info)
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