Today’s election suggests that the council is not any better than the commission that it replaced — and it might even be worse.
At the turn of this century, a number of United Nations officials lined up to criticize the organization’s Commission on Human Rights.
Even the strongest advocates of the international human-rights project were forced to admit the body’s abject failure: The world’s worst dictatorships and human-rights abusers routinely manipulated its proceedings to deflect from their own depravities. It became a tool with which to attack Western governments and human-rights defenders.
Sergio Vieira de Mello, the legendary U.N. diplomat who inspired an eponymous Netflix biopic, warned of its “use for political ends.” Former secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali raised the alarm about its manifest failings. Chief among them, he said, was “the double standards that deprive the commission of any credibility.” “In some cases,” he added, “there is concern about human rights violations, in other cases they are ignored.”
And so it was disbanded and replaced in 2006 with the U.N. Human Rights Council. The council was supposed to be different. For starters, it was founded with 47 members, six fewer than sat on the commission, so that only a more selective group of countries could serve. The U.N. resolution establishing the council also decreed that its members “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”
Needless to say, that hasn’t happened in the slightest. During the 14 years of the council’s existence, its authoritarian members have run the show. And after today’s elections to the council, many of them — China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba, among others — will re-join the world’s top human-rights advocacy forum, despite their horrendous records on these issues.
It’s a stain on the U.N.’s reputation and a disappointment that the council’s reputation is sullied by these countries and their allies. Truth be told, the council can at times do important work and fulfill its mandate to promote and protect human rights. It oversees a system of U.N. rights experts that by-and-large do excellent work; in fact, this year, close to 50 of them called for an investigation into the Chinese Communist Party’s actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and elsewhere. And during its current session, after U.N. experts released a report detailing the Maduro regime’s “crimes against humanity,” the council held an urgent session on the situation in Belarus.
On the other hand, Venezuela is a current member of the council, with the right to vote on any of the body’s resolutions. The council has also held a special debate on racism in the United States — which is undoubtedly a problem, but one that should be addressed within a liberal-democratic system, not by some of the most openly and deliberately racist regimes in the world. And as the Western world prepares sanctions on the Belarusian government’s crackdown, a Belarusian academic holds the post of special rapporteur on “unilateral coercive measures” (which is to say sanctions). She’s taken up the PR campaign, initiated by authoritarian countries decades ago and accelerated recently, that claims Western sanctions targeting human-rights abusers are the true human-rights abuses that the U.N. system must combat.