When the old, discredited UN Commission on Human Rights was abolished in 2005 in favor of the new Human Rights Council, it was hopped that more stringent requirements for membership would dissuade human rights abusers from joining. This principal has been tested from time to time over the years and for the most part has worked.
The African Union had selected Ethiopia, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Sudan, Sierra Leone, to run unchallenged for five African seats available on the 47-member rights council in November. The nomination of Sudan, which is led by President Omar al-Bashir, who has been charged by the International Criminal Court with orchestrating a campaign of genocide in Darfur, outraged human rights groups.
The United States and other critics of Sudan quietly encouraged Kenya to declare its intention to enter the race, forcing the Africans into a competitive race. Kenya agreed. After Sudan confirmed on Thursday its plan to withdraw its nomination, human rights group praised the decision.
“The worst human rights offenders are slowly recognizing they are not welcome on the Human Rights Council. Sudan joins notorious rights violators Syria, Iran, Belarus, Sri Lanka and Azerbaijan whose hypocritical aspirations to sit on the council have properly led to embarrassing retreat,” said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch, which furnished a copy of Sudan’s withdrawal letter.
As with most UN entities, the Human Rights Council operates on the principal of equitable geographic representation, meaning that a set number of seats are reserved for each region. This makes sense in theory, but sometimes geographic groups decide amongst themselves to nominate as many countries as there are open seats. This undermines the idea that countries should compete with each other (namely over their human rights records) for a seat. If there are just five countries vying for five seats, chances are good that each will win the required 97 votes from the General Assembly.
Sudan sought to exploit this weakness point in the Human Rights Council election process, but failed thanks in large part to constructive engagement by the United States. As it did when Iran vied for a seat in 2010, the USA operated behind the scenes to build a coalition against Sudan. Rather than face an embarrassing defeat, Sudan pulled out of the election.
This is how it’s supposed to work. It also shows just how valuable American participation in the Human Rights Council can be. One may question the various stances that the USA takes on issues before the council, but when it comes to supporting the council as an institution the Obama administration has been a stalwart booster.