United Nations Elects Human Rights Violators to Human Rights Council

China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia all elected to seats

Activists protest Chinese Human Rights abuses outside U.N. European Headquarters / AP
November 12, 2013

The United Nations elected China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia to seats on its Human Rights Council Tuesday, all countries that have been widely condemned by international groups for gross human rights violations.

The U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) cast votes for 14 seats on the 47-member Human Rights Council (HRC). The HRC is responsible for adopting resolutions that censure human rights abuses globally and placing special monitors on problem countries and issues.

"China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia systematically violate the human rights of their own citizens, and they consistently vote the wrong way on U.N. initiatives to protect the human rights of others," said Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, in a press release.

"When the U.N.'s highest human rights body becomes a case of the foxes guarding the henhouse, the world's victims suffer," he added.

France, Britain, South Africa, Vietnam, Algeria, Morocco, Namibia, Maldives, Macedonia, and Mexico also secured seats in the vote and will serve three-year terms.

Neuer called the elections "a black day for human rights" in a separate statement after the votes on Tuesday.

Claudia Rosett, journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), said in an interview that the latest HRC elections represent "the continuation of U.N. policies and a configuration that protects dictatorships."

The HRC was created in 2006 to replace the discredited Commission on Human Rights, which was at one point led by former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, said Rosett, who has covered the U.N. extensively. Former President George W. Bush’s administration declined to join the council but President Barack Obama accepted admission to "work from within to reform it."

"That hasn’t happened," she said.

Instead, human rights offenders use the coveted HRC seats to gain legitimacy and "warp the basic definition of human rights," Rosett said.

"It’s the Human Rights Council that routinely pushed free speech bans in the name of fighting racism and blasphemy," she said. "It’s the Human Rights Council that routinely condemns Israel more than any other state even though Israel is a democracy."

U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based human rights watchdog group, published a report before the elections evaluating whether the 16 candidates for the 14 seats met the council’s membership criteria under UNGA Resolution 60/251. That resolution recommends that candidates "uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights."

The report found that 12 of the candidates were either "not qualified" or "questionable."

China, for instance, has a conviction rate of 98 percent and "severely restricts freedom of expression, prosecutes government critics, inhibits the activities of human rights organizations and citizens, and undermines the independence of its judiciary," the report said.

Liu Xiaobo, a 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner and prominent critic of the country’s ruling Communist Party, was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009. China is also notorious for curtailing the religious freedom of minority groups, including Tibetans, Uighurs, and Christians.

"China wants to join the UNHRC not to promote human rights, but rather to prevent democracies from questioning their human rights record," said Chen Guangcheng, a Chinese rights activist and former political prisoner, in testimony at U.N. headquarters on Nov. 4.

Russia has increasingly taken an authoritarian turn under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, imprisoning outspoken critics of corruption at the Kremlin such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Sergei Magnitsky. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly detained Shiite activists and democracy advocates and continues to deny women basic rights such as voting, driving, and traveling alone, the report said.

All three nations either voted against or opposed U.N. resolutions denouncing human rights violations in North Korea and Burma.

"The presence in the Human Rights Council of the Chinese, the Russian, the Saudi, and the Cuban regimes, is disappointing for the victims of repression, and it sends a message of complicity from the international community," said Rosa Maria Paya, a Cuban dissident, in testimony.

"Cubans know that we are responsible to lead our country towards a democratic transition, but this is a time for solidarity, and democratic governments should not share seats with criminals, which behave with impunity, since they are not suffering any consequence for their violations."

Rosa Maria Paya is the daughter of the late Oswaldo Paya, a Cuban democracy activist who was mysteriously killed in a car crash last year after she says a vehicle, potentially belonging to officials of the Castro regime, deliberately rammed his car.

Rosett, the FDD journalist, said she does not expect the United States to achieve significant reforms to the HRC after the elections, noting that about half of the UNGA’s 193 member states are not free democratic countries.

"It’s impossible to create a body that is truly devoted to human rights because you have the General Assembly that is voting in its abusers," she said. "[U.S.] efforts in Geneva have been less stalwart than one might wish."

The U.S. mission to the U.N. did not return a call seeking comment.

The U.N. agency UNESCO also revoked the voting rights of the United States on Friday, a response to the U.S. decision to cut all funding to the organization after it granted the Palestinians full membership in 2011—a move that lawmakers and diplomats said at the time would undermine peace talks with the Israelis. The United States provided about $70 million, or 22 percent, of the annual budget for the agency’s educational and aid programs.

UNESCO elected Hao Ping, China’s vice minister for education, as its president last week. Ping was previously vice president of Peking University, an institution that has been accused of purging critics of the Chinese government and stifling academic freedom.