Irwin Cotler
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The tragic farce of the UN Human Rights Council

The new UN Human Rights Council includes four of the world's worst human rights violators

On Monday, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) began its first session since electing 14 new members last fall. Among them are Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China and Russia, all regimes that violate the human rights of their own populations as a matter of course.

United Nations rules specify that countries shall be elected to the HRC by the General Assembly on the basis of their “contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights.” It is therefore shameful that the new members include four of the world’s worst human rights violators, all of which received the support of a majority of UN member states.

However, UN rules also allow for the suspension from the HRC of member states that commit “gross and systemic violations of human rights.” As has been documented by the UN Special Procedures and Treaty Bodies, human rights experts and NGOs, this criterion is met by all four countries in question.

For example, Saudi Arabia imprisons Shiite activists, dissidents and human rights defenders, permits the execution of minors, and continues to refuse visit requests from the UN Special Rapporteurs for torture and freedom of expression, among others. Moreover, the lives of Saudi women are governed by the principle of male guardianship, a form of gender apartheid whereby the permission of a male relative is required to do anything from travel to undergo medical treatment.

Of the UN’s 193 member states, 140 supported Saudi Arabia’s candidacy.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Cuban government “represses virtually all forms of political dissent,” with media subject to censorship, harassment and intimidation. In addition to arbitrary arrests and closed, summary trials for dissidents, Raúl Castro’s regime has made increased use of a “dangerousness” provision in the Cuban criminal code to incarcerate individuals pre-emptively. As well, leading pro-democracy activist Oswaldo Payá was killed in a car accident in mysterious circumstances, and the regime has resisted international calls for an inquiry.

Of the UN’s 193 member states, 148 supported Cuba’s candidacy.

The government of China severely and violently restricts free expression and civil liberties. Religious and ethnic minorities – such as Uighurs and Tibetans – are persecuted, political dissidents – like Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo – are convicted on trumped-up charges without any semblance of fair trials, and prisoners suffer – inter alia – mistreatment, torture, disappearance and the forced harvesting of their organs for transplants.

Of the UN’s 193 member states, all but 27 supported China’s candidacy.

In Russia, the brutal suppression of political dissent and civic activism has intensified in recent years, as has the prosecution and persecution of sexual minorities. As a case study of the unjust nature of the Russian justice system, lawyer Sergei Magnitsky blew the whistle on widespread corruption in 2008; he was imprisoned, tortured , killed and posthumously convicted of the very fraud he had uncovered. Moreover, even before sending troops into Ukraine, Russia supported Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive regime in Syria, and voted against resolutions for human rights in Iran, North Korea and Myanmar.

Of the UN’s 193 member states, all but 27 supported Russia’s candidacy.

It is both farcical and tragic that the international community has allowed countries with egregious and ongoing human rights violations to sit on a UN body charged with the protection of those rights. This enabling constitutes an indefensible validation of the violators’ actions in the name of the UN – in breach of its own mandate – and an intolerable betrayal of the victims.
As Chinese human rights activist Yang Jianli has noted, the election of HRC members is an opportunity for free societies to express their disapproval of certain countries’ human rights records without opening themselves up to accusations of interference in the violators’ “internal affairs.” Indeed, HRC elections are held by secret ballot.

As such, the election of these four countries is a missed opportunity, as well as a repudiation of the international struggle for human rights, but it is not too late to suspend them and set things right. Not to do so would make a mockery of both the Human Rights Council and the purported commitment to human rights of the many countries – including half of the EU – who cast votes for the human rights reprobates in question.

Beginning this week, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China and Russia will sit in judgment of others, rather than in the docket of the accused. Yet these four regimes stand accused of many serious human rights violations, and only their suspension will restore the credibility of the HRC.

It is long past time for countries that espouse the values of democracy, freedom and human dignity to put their ballots where their mouths are.

About the Author
Irwin Cotler is Emeritus Professor of Law at McGill University, International Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights, former Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Canada, longtime parliamentarian, and International Legal Counsel to Prisoners of Conscience. He is Canada’s first Special Envoy for Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism.