(New York) - The UN General Assembly's unprecedented decision to suspend Libya's membership rights in the Human Rights Council (HRC) sends a strong message to those responsible for abuses in Libya that they will be held accountable, Human Rights Watch said today. 

"The General Assembly's unprecedented action signals that Libya's assault on its own people needs to end," said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.  "Suspending Libya from the Human Rights Council puts Gaddafi and his cronies on notice that they will be held to account for attacking their people and denying their rights."

Lebanon led the move at the General Assembly on March 1, 2011, to suspend Libya's membership rights in the council based on its "gross and systematic violations of human rights." The draft resolution to suspend Libya had 72 co-sponsors, including numerous Arab and African states. The resolution was adopted by consensus, further underlining the General Assembly's strong signal to the Gaddafi regime.

In acting to suspend Libya's membership rights, the General Assembly joined the UN Security Council and the HRC itself, both of which have taken strong action on Libya in recent days. All three bodies have, however, been reluctant to engage strongly on other human rights situations requiring their attention, including those in Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Zimbabwe, Human Rights Watch said. 

"The chorus of responses on Libya begs the question why abuses elsewhere go unchallenged by these same UN institutions," Hicks said.  "The action on Libya should be a model for stronger engagement by UN bodies before a full-fledged human rights crisis develops."

The HRC was created by a General Assembly resolution adopted in 2006. That resolution provides that council members should "uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights."

Regional groups of states commonly put forward for council membership only enough candidates to fill the open seats reserved for their region, however.  Such slates strip that requirement of much of its meaning, Human Rights Watch said, as election of the candidates on the slate is almost guaranteed, regardless of their human rights records.  The Africa group, which put forward Libya as one of its candidates in 2010, has offered such non-competitive slates virtually every year.

This destructive practice seems likely to continue in the elections scheduled for May 2011, as only the Eastern European and Latin American and Caribbean regions currently have more candidates than the number of seats allotted to them.  The situation could yet change, however, as it did in 2007 when Bosnia and Herzegovina announced its candidacy only eight days before the elections, creating a competitive slate for the region and leading to Belarus's defeat.

"With HRC elections approaching, members of the General Assembly should be asking themselves why Libya was elected in the first place," Hicks said. "It's time for the General Assembly to take seriously the standards it set for membership on the Human Rights Council, and apply them to countries seeking to join the body in the future."