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UN Human Rights Council Elections, Not Much of a Race After All

France Bows Out, Leaving an Open Field

Delegates arrive for the 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, February 27, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

To avoid the embarrassment of a public loss, the French government has decided to drop out of the race to join the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC). Unless another country steps up, Spain and Australia are guaranteed to win seats on the UN’s premier human rights body when votes are cast in the fall. This practice, which spares countries from coming in last in their regional groups, is euphemistically known as advancing a “clean slate.” But there's nothing clean about it.

The credibility of the UN’s Human Rights Council requires genuine, competitive elections. A seat should be a prize to be won, not a gift handed to governments after a back-room deal.

UN member states can’t effectively select countries to sit on its highest human rights body if they must appoint candidates by default. That is why France, Spain, Australia, and 45 other countries promised in June that they would “strive to ensure competitive HRC membership elections, particularly by encouraging more candidates than seats within each regional group.” By bowing out a few weeks later, France undermined its pledge and reduced the Western European race to a fait acompli. Spain and Australia can still preserve the credibility of the race by inviting another competitor to join.

The importance of competitive elections is obvious when you look at last year’s election. Russia lost its seat to Croatia by just two votes. In contrast, despite serious concerns about their fitness for the UN’s premier rights body, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who both ran in uncompetitive races, won with the smallest number of votes in their regions.

This year, the African group nominated just enough candidates to fill its open seats. One country that appears guaranteed to win a seat is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a year where more than 40 mass graves have been discovered there, scores of peaceful protesters remain detained, and two UN experts were killed in cold blood while seeking to uncover human rights violations, a seat for the Congolese government will be a huge blow to the Council’s credibility.

But those that criticize the African group for putting Congo forward without a challenger risk looking hypocritical. Latin America, Eastern Europe, and now Western Europe are doing the same by proposing “clean slates” for their regions. The French may not want to show weakness on the global stage, but their early withdrawal shows the weakness of their commitment to competitive elections at the UN.

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