Later this afternoon, the General Assembly will hold a vote on whether or not to boot Libya from the UN Human Rights Council. Doing so will require a two thirds majority vote of the entire membership of the UN–that’s 127 countries of 192 countries. At this point, Libya is so isolated internationally that I wonder which countries might actually vote against the measure or abstain. ( Maybe Venezuela? Central African Republic? Zimbabwe?)
Readers might rightly ask themselves how Libya–not exactly a paragon of human rights–ever won a rotating place on the 47 member council in the first place? The answer stems from a couple of curious features of the UN and of internal African diplomacy.
At the UN, membership to various committees (including the non-permanent seats at the Security Council) is based on the principal of equitable geographic distribution. That means that a certain number of seats are set aside for different regional groups. Africa has the most countries, so African is generally allotted proportionally more seats. In the case of the Human Rights Council, once candidates are nominated by their group, a simple majority of the General Assembly is required for a country to be admitted to the council.
When it comes to things like being elected to prestigious bodies like the Security Council or Human Rights Council, some regional groups present competitive slates of candidates–meaning multiple countries compete for a few available slots. So, for example, Canada, Portugal and Germany (which are in the “Western Europe and Others” group) competed it for only two seats on the Security Council last year. Canada lost.
In some cases, though, regional groups will simply put forward the exact same number of candidates as there are available seats. The Africa Group is notorious for doing this. They actually have very clear internal procedures for rotating between the different sub-regional groups (North, West, East, South, Central). They will almost always present a slate of candidates to various UN bodies that has been pre-determined by how they manage this rotation. So, when Libya was nominated by Africa to join the human rights council in 2010 (along with Angola, Mauritania, and Uganda) it was simply their “turn” to represent Northern Africa.
The new Human Rights Council election mechanisms put in place in 2005 requires that each country earn the vote of at least a majority of the General Assembly. But because of Libya’s oil-bought influence in African and because of indifference elsewhere, that mark was attained. (Though it should be noted that when countries opposed to a candidate put up a fight, candidates have been blocked in the General Assembly. Iran lost a potential Human Rights Council seat this way.)
So that is kind of a long explanation of how Libya got to the Human Rights Council in the first place. But considering that Libya will very likely get voted off the council today (incidentally, at unanimous request of the Council), it is worth noting that these complex procedures can, in fact, still work to punish abusers — even when the abusers have sneaked on to the council.
UPDATE: The General Assembly meeting today forced every country in the world to take a stand against Qaddafi. And every country in the world stood against him. The resolution passed by consensus.