It would be easy to give up on the United Nations Human Rights Council, as the Trump administration has done. Based in Geneva, the council is supposed to be a beacon for the world, a place where victims of human rights violations can look for abusive governments to be held to account. And yet, periodically, news breaks that a country with a particularly atrocious human rights record gained a seat on the UN body.
That happened earlier in October when Venezuela narrowly defeated Costa Rica for a seat on the council. This result would rightly horrify any casual observer. Venezuela is arguably facing the most dramatic human rights and humanitarian crisis in the Americas. Nicolás Maduro’s government is responsible for a vicious crackdown on dissent, with torture and murder being used to silence opponents and critics. A largely self-inflicted humanitarian emergency has sent more than 4.5 million Venezuelans fleeing over the borders.
In a just world, Costa Rica, a country with a solid track record on human rights compliance, would have easily defeated Venezuela. But in the hallways of the UN General Assembly, where 193 governments, most of whom are not rights-respecting democracies, are used to playing politics and securing votes through backroom deals, Venezuela, which presides over the Non-Aligned Movement, still holds some sway.
Despite Costa Rica’s 14-day lightning campaign for a council seat, Venezuela obtained 105 votes, the least of any of the new council members but just barely enough to secure a seat for three years. When the results were announced, timid applause broke out in a corner of the General Assembly — an obscene display of enthusiasm for anyone who believes in human rights and a slap in the face for the Maduro government’s victims.
It was not supposed to be like this. The UN Human Rights Council was created 13 years ago to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission. Standards were required of new members. The improved Human Rights Council has done pretty well, deploying commissions of inquiry to Syria, Myanmar, North Korea, South Sudan and Yemen, and forcing the world to open its eyes to some of the worst human rights crises.
Just last month, the council voted to open an investigation into killings and disappearances in Venezuela. Venezuela’s election will not change that.
In part because of the body’s effectiveness, countries with dubious rights records have sought seats on the council, often benefitting from an unwillingness of regional blocs to encourage/permit competition for available seats. Among its current members are China, which has detained over a million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in reeducation camps; Saudi Arabia, which carries out arbitrary detentions at home and commits war crimes in Yemen; Cuba, which represses and punishes dissent and criticism; and the Philippines, whose president has led a murderous “war on drugs.”
The presence of serial rights abusers on the council was cited by the Trump administration to justify its decision to withdraw its membership last year. In truth, the U.S. had done little to prevent problematic allies, such as Saudi Arabia, from being elected to the council.
But regardless of political agendas, critics are right to point out that the election of serious rights abusers undermines the council’s credibility. Countries such as Venezuela, China or Saudi Arabia want a seat at the table mostly to prevent criticism of their own records, or that of their allies.
Does it mean that the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater? Has the Human Rights Council undermined its ability to promote human rights around the world? Far from it. In a world beset by human rights violations, with authoritarian populist movements on the rise and armed conflicts raging around the world, the Human Rights Council is one of the few remaining places where independent investigations can be mandated and where victims of rights abuses can be heard. And unlike the UN Security Council in New York, where Russia or the U.S. can block resolutions on Syria or Israel, no one has a veto.
It would be naïve, and even counterproductive, to insist that all Human Rights Council members should have glittering human rights records. A club of well-meaning democracies speaking only to one another would have little impact on the rest of the world. Countries that face serious human rights challenges but are willing to cooperate with UN treaty bodies and rights experts belong in Geneva.
Unlike most UN bodies, the Human Rights Council has recommended membership criteria, including to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” Those responsible for widespread or systematic abuses and those that repeatedly refuse to cooperate with UN mechanisms and seek access only to block scrutiny and criticism should not have council membership. UN General Assembly members committed to human rights need to cooperate to block the worst offenders, to ensure one of the few institutions able to advance global rights can maintain, and even extend, its credibility. The world cannot afford otherwise.
Philippe Bolopion is deputy director for global advocacy at Human Rights Watch.