(New York) – The candidacies of Saudi Arabia and Russia for the United Nations Human Rights Council are severely compromised because of their widespread unlawful attacks on civilians in Yemen and Syria respectively. The annual election for seats on the 47-nation Human Right Council will be held in the General Assembly on October 28, 2016.

A general view shows the opening of the 16th session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland on February 28, 2011. 

Accepting Saudi Arabia and Russia’s re-election bids would be contrary to the basic standards for which the Human Rights Council was created 10 years ago, and risk undermining the credibility of the UN’s top human rights body and its ability to hold abusers accountable. UN member states should take this into account when considering how they will vote. Human Rights Watch also expressed serious concerns about the poor human rights records of China and Egypt, among others running for three-year council terms.

“The UN Human Rights Council’s ability to successfully expose and hold violators to account is under threat because a number of countries use it to thwart attempts to expose their own crimes and abuses,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. “Electing council members that are truly committed to improving human rights is the responsibility of each and every UN member country, and Saudi Arabia and Russia don’t honor the ideals that underpin the UN Human Rights Council.”

In the African group, Egypt, Rwanda, South Africa, and Tunisia are running on a closed slate that virtually ensures victory for all. The same holds for the Asia-Pacific group, in which China, Iraq, Japan, and Saudi Arabia are seeking the four available seats, and the Western group, in which the United Kingdom and the United States are running unopposed. In Eastern Europe, Croatia, Hungary, and Russia are each seeking one of two available seats. In the Latin American and Caribbean group, Brazil, Cuba, and Guatemala are in the running for two seats.

UN member countries should put an end to closed slates, scrap vote-trading, and be clear that countries elected should expect their own human rights records to be subject to increased scrutiny during their council terms.

In June 2016, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, joined by a broad coalition of nongovernmental organizations, called for suspending Saudi Arabia from the Human Rights Council due to the Saudi-led coalition’s numerous illegal attacks on civilians in Yemen. Since then, the civilian death toll from indiscriminate coalition airstrikes has continued to rise. More than 11,000 civilians have been killed or wounded since March 2015, most of them in coalition airstrikes. Earlier in 2016, Saudi Arabia threatened to withdraw funds from critical UN programs to compel UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to remove the coalition from his “List of Shame” for killing and maiming children and attacking schools and hospitals in Yemen.

Russia’s gross disregard for civilian lives in Syria makes it unfit to serve on the council, Human Rights Watch said. Russia has allied with the Syrian government for more than a year, carrying out airstrikes to support the Syrian armed forces that have indiscriminately killed and wounded countless civilians. Human Rights Watch has documented joint Syrian-Russian military operations using internationally banned cluster munitions and incendiary weapons in populated areas of Syria in violation of the laws of war.

Russia is participating in a stepped-up bombing campaign in Aleppo that has put the lives of some 250,000 civilians, many of them children, at grave risk. Russia has also used its Human Rights Council membership to undermine international standards, seeking to elevate government-decreed “traditional values” over universal human rights, bringing dozens of amendments to council resolutions in an attempt to eliminate the concept of human rights defenders, and resorting to procedural tactics to stifle debate.

Under UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251, which established the Human Rights Council, UN member states “shall take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights” and members elected to the council “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and “fully cooperate with the council.”

Measured against these standards, neither Russia nor Saudi Arabia belongs on the Human Rights Council, and other candidates raise serious concerns, Human Rights Watch said. Egypt has carried out mass detentions, deprived people of due process, eliminated independent organizations, and handed down numerous death sentences after unfair trials. There has also been no accountability for the August 2013 mass killings in Cairo’s Rab’a al-Adawiya Square.

In China, the government of Xi Jinping has overseen the most aggressive campaign against human rights since the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. Beijing intimidates and punishes activists who seek to engage with UN human rights units, limits the ability of special rapporteurs to work in the country, provides woefully dishonest information in key reviews, and increasingly rejects the idea of the universality of human rights, leaving UN monitoring effectively unavailable to people across China.

Other candidate countries should strengthen their membership bids by pledging to address serious human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said. Before it can be considered a credible candidate, Cuba will need to end its systematic repression of dissent and its refusal to allow visits by UN human rights monitors.

Iraq should investigate and end any violations by government forces, who in Fallujah allegedly committed summary executions, beatings, forced disappearances, and other abuses. Iraqi authorities should hold to account pro-government forces that have engaged in widespread indiscriminate attacks against civilians and recruited children.

Rwanda should uphold the rights to freedom of expression and association and ensure that political opponents are not threatened or abused. Hungary needs to end its pushbacks against refugees and migrants. The UK should reform legislation that allows excessive surveillance, while the US needs to ensure accountability for torture committed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Both the US and UK should halt the sale of all arms to Saudi Arabia. And South Africa should reconsider its plan to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, a decision that is a slap in the face for victims of the most serious crimes worldwide.

The Human Rights Council was created in 2006 to replace the failed UN Commission on Human Rights, which had largely been unwilling to address real human rights concerns and to which the world’s worst rights abusers could easily get elected. Over the last 10 years, the council has made significant contributions to human rights, reviewing the human rights records of all countries under the Universal Periodic Review process; creating commissions of inquiry on North Korea, Syria, Burundi, and other countries; and appointing numerous special rapporteurs and other independent experts to ensure solid investigations into alleged abuses even when the country concerned refuses to cooperate.

However, the council needs to be vigilant to avoid the problems that plagued its predecessor, including a loss of credibility from admitting countries with little regard for the international human rights standards the body is sworn to uphold. Instead of competitive elections in which states seek to demonstrate their human rights credentials, regional groups often agree in advance on which candidates will run, resulting in mostly closed slates for which victory of all those campaigning is virtually assured.

“UN member states should raise the bar on Human Rights Council membership,” Charbonneau said. “If the council is to be a credible instrument for exposing and ending human rights abuses worldwide, regional groups need to ensure healthy competition and qualified candidates for every seat, instead of cutting backroom deals. Otherwise, the council risks becoming a rogues’ gallery for the worst rights violators.”