All five of the General Assembly’s regional groups submitted competition-free slates, meaning that all candidates, regardless of their rights records, are virtually assured seats on the council. The absence of competition reverses the modest progress in previous years when some slates offered a modicum of competition. By putting forward serious rights violators and presenting only as many candidates as seats available, the regional groups risk undermining the council’s credibility and effectiveness.
“UN member countries should show their outrage at the Philippines and Eritrea by leaving two spots on the ballot sheet blank and keeping them off the council,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. “Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s abusive ‘war on drugs’ has been a killing frenzy that has left thousands dead. In Eritrea, the authorities persecute and jail government critics and force citizens into indefinite national service.”
Countries need a minimum of 97 votes – a simple majority – to get elected to the council.
The Philippines is undergoing a human rights crisis that may amount to crimes against humanity. Since Duterte took office in July 2016, more than 12,000 suspected drug dealers and users have been gunned down in what they call “legitimate police operations.” Human Rights Watch and other rights groups, as well as the media, have found a pattern of police misconduct, notably the planting of drugs and handguns on suspects’ bodies. The killings continue daily and have spread to cities and provinces outside the capital, Manila. The Duterte administration has sought to quell all dissent and criticism of the “drug war” by jailing, threatening, and harassing critics. No police officer has been convicted for any of these deaths.
The recent arrest of Eritrea’s former finance minister is indicative of the ongoing repression in the country, despite recent progress in its diplomatic engagements. Eritrean political prisoners include 21 senior government officials and journalists detained since 2001 after they criticized President Isaias Afewerki. Some have been in incommunicado detention without charge for over 17 years.
A 1995 proclamation requires 18 months of national service for all Eritreans, but the government forces many conscripts to serve indefinitely. A UN Commission of Inquiry in 2016 said the government’s “totalitarian practices” and disrespect for the rule of law manifested “wholesale disregard for the liberty of its citizens.” Indefinite national service has compelled tens of thousands of Eritreans to flee the country over many years.
As a condition of membership, Human Rights Council members are expected to cooperate with the council and its rights experts. Instead, the Philippines has carried out vicious campaigns against UN officials, including against the special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings and the high commissioner for human rights. Eritrea has refused all cooperation with the Commission of Inquiry and a special rapporteur, whom the Council appoints.
Human Rights Watch also raised serious concerns about human rights in Bahrain and Cameroon. In Bahrain, the courts have convicted and imprisoned peaceful dissenters, including prominent human rights defenders such as Nabeel Rajab. Police and National Security Agency officers threaten, coerce, and mistreat detainees into signing confessions. Authorities have failed to hold officials responsible for torture to account.
In Cameroon, government security forces and armed separatists have committed grave abuses against residents of the country’s Anglophone region. The region has been rocked by protests and violent clashes rooted in longstanding political grievances of the Anglophone minority. While the government has taken some positive steps in recent months, including signing the Safe Schools Declaration, violence and abuses in the Anglophone region continue.
In addition to Bahrain and the Philippines, the Asia group has also nominated Fiji, India, and Bangladesh. In addition to Eritrea and Cameroon, the Africa group has nominated Burkina Faso, Togo, and Somalia. The Latin American group has put forward Argentina, Uruguay, and the Bahamas. Eastern Europe has proposed Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. From Western Europe, Austria, Denmark, and Italy are running.
The Human Rights Council was created in 2006 to replace the failed UN Commission on Human Rights, which had largely been unwilling to address grave human rights concerns and to which the world’s worst rights violators could easily be elected. Over the last 12 years, the council has made significant contributions to human rights, reviewing the human rights records of all countries under the Universal Periodic Review process.
It has created commissions of inquiry on North Korean, Syria, Burundi, Myanmar, Yemen, and other countries. And it has appointed numerous special rapporteurs and other independent experts to ensure competent and impartial investigations into alleged abuses even when the country concerned refused to cooperate.
The council recently displayed its important role protecting and promoting human rights. In its September 2018 session, the first since the US withdrew from the body, the council created a quasi special prosecutor unit to gather and preserve evidence related to the abuses against the Rohingya in Myanmar. It adopted the UN’s first-ever resolution on the crisis in Venezuela, renewed the mandate of the UN investigation into abuses by all parties to the conflict in Yemen, and held the first public discussion of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ report on reprisals against human rights defenders by such countries as China, Egypt, and Bahrain.
“Many UN member states talk a good game about strengthening the Human Rights Council, but this year all regional groups ignored the need for competitive elections,” Charbonneau said. “Instead of pushing candidates to demonstrate they’re worthy of joining the UN’s premier human rights body, the UN membership has put forward a non-competitive vote that makes a mockery of the word ‘election.’”