Image Description: The photograph is of a tweet by the President of the United Nations General Assembly. In the tweet, the President is congratulating Algeria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Chile, Costa Rica, Georgia, Germany, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Morocco, Romania, South Africa, Sudan and Vietnam on their election to the Human Rights Council for the term 2023-2025.
On 11 October 2022, the General Assembly elected 14 member states to the Human Rights Council. Given that the Council is the pre-eminent charter-based body for the protection, promotion and development of human rights within the UN system, it is important to pay attention to these elections. The membership of the Human Rights Council is likely to impact its work.
By way of background, the Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body composed of 47 member states elected by the General Assembly for a 3-year term, with 1/3rd members being elected each year. The membership is based on equitable geographical distribution, dividing seats among five regions of the world – Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Western Europe and others.
The Human Rights Council replaced the Commission on Human Rights in 2006, to resolve concerns around ‘politicisation’ and ‘regionalism’ within the Commission. Of course, it is difficult to imagine an intergovernmental body of states escaping political and regional considerations in its decision-making processes. Here, the idea of deliberative democracy can come to our aid. The point ought to be to ensure that decision-making within the Council is deliberative, with human rights concerns being emphasised within the deliberations, rather than a body that decides through interest-bargaining among nation states and regional blocks. If decision-making does take place through interest bargaining rather than reasoned deliberation, the human rights concerns of those facing intersecting oppressions is likely to be drowned out by more powerful national, regional and international interests. Activists, scholars, other states and the international community at large ought to, and do, hold the Council accountable to adhere to this deliberative ideal, both by participating within the Council to enrich deliberations on human rights issues, and outside of it.
To aid this deliberative ideal, elections to the Human Rights Council are envisaged to take place based on the human rights commitments and record of candidate states, and not on other diplomatic, trade, regional and political considerations. General Assembly Resolution 60/251, which established the Human Rights Council, requires, ‘when electing members of the Council, Member States shall take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto.’ Yet Council elections are plagued by the problem of clean slates, wherein regional groupings decide amongst themselves which states will stand for elections, so that the number of candidates equal the number of empty seats within a region, eradicating competition within a region for seats on the Council. The problem of clean slates continued this election cycle within the Western European, African and Eastern European regions, where states were elected unopposed. It is difficult to understand the extent to which the human rights commitments and records of these states were scrutinised during their election.
On the other hand, elections for seats within the Latin American and Caribbean, and Asian regions were competitive. Among Asian states, Afghanistan sought membership of the Council despite its poor record on human rights, and particularly women’s rights, in recent times. Unsurprisingly, its candidature was unsuccessful, when it obtained only 12 votes out of a total of 189 valid votes cast. Venezuela sought membership to the Council from Latin America and was unsuccessful, obtaining a total of 88 votes out of the 189 valid votes cast. Venezuela has been criticised for its human rights record both by UN human rights mechanisms and civil society.
It should be noted that no public deliberations were held prior to voting before the General Assembly, and voting was by secret ballot, so it is difficult to understand the basis on which states cast their votes, and how much weight they placed on human rights considerations. Also, prior to voting, Singapore raised a concern that gifts were being distributed at the entrance of the General Assembly by some states standing for elections, in violation of paragraph 48 of the relevant GA Resolution, raising concerns of equity and decorum with regards to the election. To aid a deliberative voting process, a pledging event was organised by civil society groups – Amnesty International and the International Service for Human Rights – to give an opportunity to candidate states to present their visions for Council membership and to respond to questions from a range of stakeholders on how they propose to realise the pledges and commitments they made in seeking election.
Continued scrutiny on both the membership and work of the Human Rights Council is necessary to hold it accountable for its role in promoting and protecting human rights internationally.