UN Human Rights Council appoints countries with ‘despicable human rights’ records

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia Journalist

The latest appointments to the UN Human Rights Council for the 2020-22 term have again raised the perennial concern that countries are being elected despite repeated failure to uphold human rights.

Fourteen member states were appointed to the UN Human Rights Council at the 74th UN General Assembly in New York on 17 October. The appointment of several countries with chequered human rights records – namely Brazil, Libya, Mauritania, Poland and Venezuela – have attracted particular criticism.

The continued willingness to appoint ‘countries with despicable human rights practices’ is disgraceful, says Justice Richard Goldstone, Honorary President of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute. ‘This has been going on for far too long and undoubtedly diminishes the important work performed by the Human Rights Council,’ he says. ‘The UN should ensure that respect for human rights is a sine qua non for appointment to the Council.’

Venezuela narrowly beat Costa Rica to win the second Latin American seat, alongside Brazil, despite the country’s deteriorating human rights situation. The appointment comes less than a month after the Human Rights Council itself adopted a resolution to create an independent fact-finding body to investigate extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment committed in Venezuela since 2014. In July, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Nicolás Maduro’s government to take ‘immediate measures to halt and remedy grave rights violations.’

This has been going on for far too long and undoubtedly diminishes the important work performed by the Human Rights Council

Justice Richard Goldstone
Honorary President, IBA Human Rights Institute

The UN isn’t the only body monitoring events in Venezuela. In September 2018, the governments of Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, and Peru referred the situation in the country to the International Criminal Court (ICC), marking the first time that ICC States Parties have been asked to investigate potential crimes that have taken place in a different jurisdiction.

Eleanor Openshaw, New York Director and Head of Regional Advocacy at the International Service for Human Rights, says the decision to elect Venezuela is hugely disappointing. ‘It is incredible to think that 105 countries thought this was the country to put their support behind to be a member of the world's premier human rights body,’ she says. ‘However, I think the fact that Venezuela only got 105 votes is also significant. It is amongst the smallest margins, with 97 votes being the minimum required.’

Each elected member will serve a three-year term starting in January 2020 and cannot stand for re-election after two consecutive terms. The voting is conducted through a secret ballot and the 47-member Council is always made up of 13 African states, 13 Asia-Pacific states, eight Latin American and Caribbean states, six from Eastern Europe and seven from Western Europe.

Despite the controversy surrounding appointments to the Human Rights Council, it still has an important role. Federica D’Alessandra is Executive Director of the Oxford Programme on International Peace and Security and Co-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee. ‘The Council is a central fora for calling out human rights violators,’ she says, ‘most importantly, it is one of the very few such fora in which civil society has not been cut out or marginalised. The same cannot, unfortunately, be said of other august bodies such as the General Assembly, where pressure from human rights resisting bodies have been more effective, and where civil society participation is regularly and increasingly curtailed.’

This may be a compelling argument for continuing to give states with poor human rights records a seat on the Council. ‘It is always civilians who pay the highest price of exclusion from international fora,’ says D’Alessandra. ‘The prevalent view is to keep [states] around the table and try where possible to leverage their membership to attempt constructive engagement, rather than shutting them out.’

Openshaw agrees that it’s important to ensure membership of the Human Rights Council counts. ‘As States have chosen to elect Venezuela on to the Human Rights Council, they must demand that the new member, Venezuela, cooperates with Council mechanisms, in particular the recently-created fact-finding mission to the country,’ she says.

As well as having the ability to launch fact-finding missions and establish commissions of inquiry into specific situations, the Universal Periodic Review – a peer-to-peer appraisal of member states’ human rights records that is carried out three times a year – is an important mechanism to monitor member states’ conduct.

These controversial appointments come at a time when the UN is under increasing pressure to hold states to account, particularly as the Security Council veto continues to thwart the organisation’s efforts to pursue countries that demonstrate flagrant disregard for international human rights laws. ‘Ever more importantly in these times of deep crisis and withdrawal from human rights, the Human Rights Council has increasingly become assertive in areas where politics of the Security Council have caused gridlock or flat out demoted human rights issues that used to be central to its agenda, such as accountability for crimes like genocide,’ says D’Alessandra, who refers to the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar. ‘European, Latin American and Arab countries were united in wanting to see justice, but this could not happen through the Security Council.’