FRESH AIR

As Australia leaves UNHRC, human rights abusers step up

Oct 16, 2020 | Oved Lobel and Allon Lee

UNHRC

With Australia’s three year term on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) ending in December, the notoriously anti-Israel committee is set to become even more stacked with anti-democratic human rights abusers following this week’s election to fill 15 spots up for grabs.

Following the vote, UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer said:

“51% of U.N. Human Rights Council members FAIL to meet the minimal standards of a free democracy. Thanks to today’s election of China, Russia, Cuba, Pakistan & Uzbekistan, that figure will rise to a staggering 60% beginning on January 1, 2021.”

In addition to those five countries, Bolivia, Cote d’Ivoire, France, Gabon, Malawi, Mexico, Nepal, Senegal, Ukraine and the UK were also elected to the Council.

Our New Human Rights Guardians  

Human Rights Watch (HRW) lamented especially that China’s election came despite 50 UN experts in June calling for “decisive measures to protect fundamental freedoms in China” because of its policies in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) actually considers the mere concept of Universal Values, allegedly the raison d’etre of the UN, to be an existential threat, and has banned any mention of it.

China allegedly has an ever-expanding network of massive prison and “re-education” camps throughout Xinjiang, in which over a million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities are held and enslaved in what appears to be one of the most systematic, horrifying human rights abuses in recent history.

Yet this is only one example of the CCP’s systemic disregard and contempt for even the most basic human rights – a reality that pervades every aspect of life in China. Some argue that China’s comprehensive persecution, including forced sterilisation, of the Uighurs, meets the official definition of genocide. Yet, given the UNHRC’s terrible record, it seems almost natural that China would once again be elevated to the Council ostensibly devoted to universal human rights.

Russia, meanwhile, has used its veto power at the UN Security Council 16 times to enable Syria to continue using chemical weapons and to block referral of the situation there to the International Criminal Court, while its own forces have allegedly engaged in the bombing of hospitals and other war crimes in Syria and around the world.

Cuba, which contributes significantly to the horrific ongoing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, including extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, is a historically notorious human rights abuser, including establishing a network of camps to rid itself of those it considered undesirables, from homosexuals to political dissidents. Cuba continues this proud tradition today, although what is publicly known is only the tip of the iceberg, as Cuba does not allow any legitimate international monitors to assess its conduct. According to Amnesty International’s 2019 assessment, “Cuba’s new administration failed to ratify key international human rights treaties and refused to strengthen the independence of the judiciary or to bring Cuba’s criminal laws into line with international human rights law and standards.” Another shoo-in for the UN Human Rights Council.

Pakistan provides material support for an alphabet soup of brutal jihadi terrorist groups throughout the region and is a maestro of instrumentalising internal sectarian tensions between the Sunni and Shia and between Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities. So it is also an obvious candidate for the UN Human Rights Council.

Amnesty’s 2019 overview of Pakistan’s Human Rights record begins: “The authorities intensified their crackdown on the right to freedom of expression. Enforced disappearances remained pervasive, with no one held accountable for them. The government failed to uphold its commitments to legislate against torture and enforced disappearances. Violence against women and girls remained widespread. Parliament blocked attempts to restrict child marriage. Religious minorities continued to be prosecuted under blasphemy laws and attacked by non-state actors.” Of course, this doesn’t even scratch the surface of Pakistan’s contempt for human rights and, frankly, human life.

How did this happen? 

Israel’s United Nations envoy Gilad Erdan asserted in response to these elections that “Today’s Human Rights Council elections prove once again that this council has nothing to do with protecting human rights and everything to do with violating them.”

In 2018, the US withdrew from the Council citing its anti-Israel bias. This week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted, “The election of China, Russia, and Cuba to the UN Human Rights Council validates the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Council in 2018 and use other venues to protect and promote universal human rights.”

The prevalence of countries on the Council with appalling human rights records contravenes the UN’s own guidelines for desired eligibility. According to HRW:

UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251, which created the Human Rights Council, urges states voting for members to “take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights.” Council members are required to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” at home and abroad and “fully cooperate with the Council.”

One news report quoted Kevin Jon Heller, professor of international law at the University of Copenhagen, saying, “There is simply no evidence that countries take human rights records into account when they vote.”

Membership on the Council is allocated according to five regional groupings.

The African and Asia/Pacific groups have 13 seats each, Latin America has eight, Western Europe and Others gets seven and Eastern Europe has six.

According to HRW, only the Asia-Pacific regional group had a “competitive slate”, meaning that the nominees from the four other groups were virtually assured of winning seats, regardless of their human rights record.

Significantly, the new Council’s composition will not include Australia, whose term is ending.

Australia has been a principled moderating voice when anti-Israel resolutions arise as part of the Council’s notorious permanent Agenda Item 7  – which focuses solely on Israel and is the only such permanent agenda item dedicated to a single country.

Prof. Gerald Steinberg, the head of NGO Monitor, told AIJAC during a webinar in July, “Australia has played an outstanding role in opposing, particularly at the UN Human Rights Council, some of the demonisation of Israel”.

Sadly, as of January, Australia’s voice will be gone from the UNHRC, and countries like China, Russia and Pakistan will dominate it with even less push back. Both the UN’s reputation and the wider cause of universal human rights will be the poorer as result of this sad and ridiculous reality.

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