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US Elected to United Nations Human Rights Council
December 5, 2012
By: Katherine Keally | Printer Friendly

On November 12, the US was elected to a second consecutive, three-year term on the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC). Other states elected by the United Nations General Assembly (GA) through secret ballot voting included Argentina, Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire, Estonia, Ethiopia, Gabon, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Montenegro, Pakistan, the Republic of Korea, Sierra Leone, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela, reported the UNGA. The HRC contains 47 seats based on five regional groups and replaced the Commission on Human Rights in 2006 to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” The US, at 131 votes, earned the most votes in the Western European and Other States, along with Germany (127 votes) and Ireland (124 votes), to beat out Greece and Sweden for the 3 open regional seats. HRC members must be elected by an absolute majority of the 193 members of the GA, and they cannot be re-elected following two consecutive terms.

The Better World Campaign (BWC), dedicated to augmenting the US-UN relationship, praised the US’s election to the Council as a symbol of US leadership in promoting human rights. Peter Yeo, the BWC’s Executive Director, commended the US victory as “well earned” through a competitive election: “The Obama Administration should be applauded for leading by example and participating in a genuinely competitive HRC election, risking a loss against a strong slate of fellow countries.” Yeo emphasized that the US’s willingness to engage in a competitive election may encourage other countries to compete for seats on the Council in a similarly competitive manner.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also considered the election to be “highly competitive” and thanked the countries that supported the US in the election. Clinton pledged on behalf of the US to “continue to work closely with the international community to address urgent and serious human rights concerns…and to strengthen the Council.” Although Clinton expressed that the Council still had “much hard work” ahead, in reference to a “disproportionate and biased focus on Israel,” she was positive in the ability of the Council to cooperate and achieve progress on human rights concerns.

Despite the competition in the Western European and Other States group, Human Rights Watch (HRW) was critical of limited competition for the majority of HRC seats. As only three newly elected members faced competition for their seats, HRW’s Global Advocacy Director Peggy Hicks suggested that “[u]ntil there is real competition for seats in the Human Rights Council, its membership standards will remain more rhetoric than reality.” The African regional group of the HRC has faced particular criticism for its lack of competitive elections due to the use of a rotation system that permits all countries to obtain seats in the Council, regardless of their human rights record. According to HRW, many nongovernmental organizations focused on the HRC have called on countries such as Ethiopia, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela to ameliorate their human rights record due to their candidacies.

The US’s election to the Council has similarly stirred up debate on whether the US itself is worthy of the Council seat.  In a Foreign Policy report, Director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program, Jamil Dakwar, proposed that the US has the “political power to secure” the votes, but its War on Terror, use of the death penalty, and immigration laws place its human rights record inferior to other European states. Nevertheless, Dakwar conceded that “the United States deserve[d] to be on the Human Rights Council because of its overall record on human rights issues over the years and its commitment to strengthening human rights.” Although the Bush administration did not join the HRC when it was founded in 2006, citing the illegitimacy of a body composed of many countries with poor human rights records, the Obama administration has worked from within the system to limit the membership of countries with poor records.

Better World Campaign – U.S. Election to UN Human Rights Council is a Win for All Americans

Foreign Policy – Does the U.S. deserve its new seat on the Human Rights Council?

General  Assembly of the United Nations – In Single Secret Ballot, General Assembly Elects 18 Member States to Serve Three-Year Terms on Human Rights Council

Human Rights Watch – UN: Noncompetitive Elections Weaken Rights Council

US Department of State – United States Reelection to the Human Rights Council



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