UPDATE. The votes are in: The USA, Ireland, and Germany won the three contested seats.
The General Assembly votes today on membership to the UN Human Rights Council. 18 of the Council’s 47 seats are up for grabs. To win a seat, a country must win a majority vote in a secret ballot of 193 member General Assembly. Like most elections at the UN, the seats are portioned out along the principale of equitable geographic distribution, meaning that there are a specific number of seats set aside for each region of the globe.
For every region except Western European and Others Group (WEOG) there are an equal number of seats as there are candidates. This is not quite how it is supposed to work, but regional bodies sometimes game the system by taking the competition out of the vote. (That said, when Sudan tried to become one of the 5 African countries to join the council, the international community stepped up to make clear that Sudan would not win 96 affirmative votes at the General Assembly necessary to win election.)
The race to watch today is the WEOG competition. Here, you have five good candidates for three seats. The stakes are probably the highest for the USA. The Human Rights Council is still considered to be controversial in some circles (the Bush administration opted to effectively boycott it in 2005). Seeking and winning a seat on the Council in early 2009 was the Obama administration’s first signal to the UN and to the world that it was going to make good on its promises of constructive engagement made during the 2008 campaign.
Fast forward four years later, and there is a good case to make that having the USA on the Human Rights Council makes the council a more effective institution. This is not to say that the USA has a perfect human rights record—it does not. But US engagement on some contentious issues can help tip the balance toward progress on human rights. A good example of this in action is the Council’s historic vote June 2011 resolution equating LGBT rights with human rights. This was a very close vote, and required that at least some countries in Africa vote with the progressive bloc. Given its stature, the USA is uniquely able to corral fence sitting countries to vote with them in a way that say Sweden (which arguably has a stronger human rights record) cannot.