The General Assembly will vote for the newest members of the UN Human Rights Council today. Here’s the slate of candidates:
Council members serve three year terms and are not eligible for immediate re-election after serving two consecutive terms. This means that every year, the 47 member body replaces about one third of its membership. Like in other UN bodies, the elections follow the rule of “equitable geographic representation.” This means that there are a certain number of seats set aside for each region based on the number of countries in that region. To be elected, a county must receive an absolute majority (that’s 97 votes) in a secret ballot held by the General Assembly.
Two things to say about these elections. First, you may notice that there is an equal number of candidates as there are open seats. The way these things tend to work is that a number of years before the election the regional groups decide amongst themselves which candidates they will put forward. According to one source, the current slate of candidates was decided upon in 2007. That means the real politiking happens long before the actual vote. If a country believes it does not have the votes to win, it will withdraw its candidacy to avoid the embarrassment. This is what happened a couple of weeks ago after the United States assembled a coalition to block Iran’s candidacy for one of the Asian seats. I imagine with the United States now more fully engaged, we’ll start to see better slates of candidates over the next couple of election cycles. “We are out urging qualified candidates to run,” says Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Suzanne Nossel.
Second, for these reasons, there is no escaping the fact that Libya will be elected to the council. While it’s true that Libya is not exactly a paragon of human rights, it is worth recognizing that since its rapprochement with the west Libya has occupied a number of important posts at the United Nations And its done so without much incident. Libya was on the Security Council from 2007 to 2009. During that time, the Council passed sanctions resolutions on North Korea, issued a number of critical anti-Piracy resolutions, and held a groundbreaking session on disarmament that was led by President Obama. A Libyan is also currently president of the General Assembly. That fact hasn’t exactly crippled the work of the UN.
These are things to keep in mind as, I would imagine, the regular cadre of Human Rights Council bashers will no doubt seize on the fact that Libya is now a member.
UPDATE: The United States reponds. Here is Susan Rice at a press stakeout yesterday. She handles the “Libya question.”
Ambassador Rice: The United States joined the Human Rights Council a year ago because we feel very firmly that the promotion and protection of human rights internationally is a core value of the United States, and a fundamental cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. We did so understanding full well that this is a Council that has not lived up to its potential, and remains flawed, but we have taken the view in this and other circumstances that it is preferable to work from within to shape and reform a body with the importance and potential of the Human Rights Council, rather than to stay on the sidelines and reject it. It will take time, no doubt, for our efforts and those of others to bear fruit and it’s not a task that the United States can accomplish on its own. But we remain committed to strengthening and reforming this Council.
And indeed, we think in the short time that the United States has been on the Council, there has indeed been some progress. In the first instance it’s notable who was not on the ballot today, and that Iran’s bid fell short and was withdrawn in April. Secondly, the United States passed—led an effort last September to pass unanimously an important resolution in the Council on freedom of expression, and brought together countries from all corners to accomplish what was a milestone achievement. The United States also played a leading role in getting the Council to focus constructively on the challenge in Guinea last year and to contribute to a full investigation of the massacres and rapes in Guinea. We were successful in renewing and strengthening country-specific mandates for critical countries like the DRC, Burma, Somalia and Sudan. We have also brought a larger number of countries to join the United States perspective on the problematic concept of defamation of religion. We have work going forward. I am particularly interested in actively shaping the Council in the context of the review that will be coming up in a few months time and we continue to be committed to strengthening and making meaningful the UPR process. But I think we’ll see the results today. I don’t think there’s a great deal of suspense, and we hope that the new Council’s composition for the most part will provide us with partners—not all, but most, with whom we can work constructively to achieve these goals.
Reporter: Some human rights groups have complained about Libya joining the Council, do you share those concerns?
Ambassador Rice: Well I think as you know having covered this institution for a while, the United States doesn’t reveal for whom we vote. But I think it’s fair to say that this year, there is a small number of countries whose human rights records is problematic that are likely to be elected and we regret that. I’m not going to sit here and name names. I don’t think it’s particularly constructive at this point. But it’s obvious which countries that are on the ballot have more problematic human rights records than others. We don’t measure the success of the Council solely in terms of who is on the body. The most important metric is what the Council does, and what actions it takes or doesn’t take. And yet it is the U.S. view that countries that run for and are elected to the Human Rights Council ought to be those whose records on human rights are strong and cannot be impugned. And those that don’t meet that standard really don’t merit membership on the Human Rights Council. But in this body, as in other UN bodies, there will always be countries whose orientations and perspectives we don’t agree with, and yet we have to work with them. And that’s what we will do in this context as well.