UPDATE: Evidence that competitive elections work: In a stunning rebuke, Russia lost to Hungary and Croatia. It will not be joining the Council next year. Meanwhile, Brazil and Cuba beat Guatemala for the two Latin America seats.
UPDATE 2: It’s probably worth emphasizing that the USA received 175 votes out of 193. This is significant because this is the first time the USA is joining the council since it was term-limited out three years ago. Apparently, the vast majority of countries around the world support American leadership at the Council.
Original post below
The United Nations is selecting new members of the 47-member Geneva-based Human Rights Council today. Several current members are term-limited out of the council, to be replaced by either new entrants or countries seeking a second term. (After two consecutive three-year terms, a country must sit out a term before it can run again.)
Here are the candidates. To win election or re-election, a country must earn the votes of the majority of the General Assembly, or 97 countries.
It’s fair to say that several of these candidates have less than stellar human right records. But in regions where there are an equal number of candidates as open seats, those countries are very likely to be elected (or in the case of China and Saudi Arabia, re-elected). This is because membership to bodies in the UN system, like the Human Rights Council, are based on what the UN calls the “principle of equitable geographic representation,” meaning that a specific number of seats are reserved for each region. What sometimes happens in situations like this is that the regional groups collude amongst themselves to put up the same number of candidates as there are open seats. A non-competitive race results.
In three out of the five regions there is no a competitive race today. This not only includes Africa and Asia-Pacific (where a number of countries have poor human rights records) but also the “Western Europe and Others Group” which includes only liberal democracies. So the United States and United Kingdom, which style themselves as global human rights leaders, are not exactly leading by example here.
In the past, when countries with problematic human rights records have sought membership to the Council, the Obama administration has worked behind the scenes to convince the regional group to make the race competitive. This time around, the USA is locked in a non-competitive election race with the UK, so its ability to convince other regions to put up more candidates than there are available seats is somewhat undermined.
Why this Matters
The membership of the Human Rights Council may be flawed, but it has been an important instrument in advancing human rights globally across a number of issues. The Human Rights Council was the first UN organ, back in 2011, to affirm that LGBT rights are human rights. This began a process of mainstreaming sexual orientation and sexual preference into the broader human rights architecture of the international system.
The Council also approves the mandates of various special rapporteurs and independent experts who keep focus on specific injustices around the world, from limiting free expression, to war crimes ongoing in Aleppo, to human rights abuses in Eritrea. . A 2012 Brookings Institution study showed that these experts and special rapporteurs dispatched by the UN have resulted in real-world human rights improvements on the ground.
The Human Rights Council has never had a perfect membership in the eyes of the human rights community. Yet despite its flaws, it has been able to move the needle on a number of key human rights issues. Still, the more competitive races there are, the more likely it is that the council will be filled by countries with stronger human rights records.