(New York) – United Nations member countries should deny Russia and China seats on the UN Human Rights Council in voting at the UN General Assembly on October 10, 2023, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities in both countries have been responsible for numerous crimes against humanity as well as other grave human rights violations, making them fall far short of the membership standards for the UN’s top human rights body.
Cuba and Burundi are also running for three-year terms despite not meeting the membership criteria. They have committed systematic human rights violations, including harassment, arbitrary detention and torture of dissidents. Delegations in the 193-nation General Assembly should take all four countries’ abysmal human rights records into consideration when casting their votes in the secret-ballot election for 15 council seats for 2024-2026.
"Every day Russia and China remind us by committing abuses on a massive scale that they should not be members of the UN Human Rights Council," said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. "No country on the Human Rights Council has an unblemished rights record, but every UN member nation should recognize that the council has membership standards for which Russia and China show despicable disregard."
UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251, which created the Human Rights Council in 2006, urges countries voting for members to “take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights.” Council members are required to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” at home and abroad and “fully cooperate with the council.”
Russia is seeking to return to the council after the General Assembly voted to suspend its membership in April 2022 in response to its systematic atrocities against Ukrainian civilians following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. After the General Assembly suspended Russia, Moscow announced it was withdrawing from the council altogether.
Russia remains unqualified for Human Rights Council membership, Human Rights Watch said. Russian forces in Ukraine continue to commit apparent war crimes, including unlawful attacks and mistreatment of prisoners, and crimes against humanity, including torture, summary executions, and enforced disappearances against civilians.
Russia’s unlawful deportations of Ukrainian children are the subject of International Criminal Court arrest warrants for President Vladimir Putin and his children’s rights commissioner. The Kremlin has also accelerated its crackdown on civil society, pressing charges against thousands for speaking out against the war, closing human rights groups, and unjustly prosecuting prominent opposition leaders.
China’s rights record should also disqualify it from the Human Rights Council. In 2022, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report on Chinese government violations against Turkic Muslim communities in Xinjiang, including cultural and religious persecution, family separation, mass arbitrary arrests and detention, rape, torture, and enforced disappearances. The office concluded that the abuses “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
The 2023 Asian, African, and Western groups’ slates are all non-competitive, meaning that all candidates from those regions are likely to win Seats. In the Eastern European group, Albania, Bulgaria, and Russia are vying for two seats. In the Latin American and Caribbean group, Cuba, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Peru are running for three seats. In Asia, China, Japan, Kuwait and Indonesia are running for four seats. In Africa, Burundi, Malawi, Ghana, and Ivory Coast are running for the four available seats, while France and the Netherlands are seeking to fill the Western group’s two available seats.
Candidates need a simple majority of votes to be elected. So even though the Asian slate is noncompetitive, member countries should not vote for China. It would be better to leave one seat empty and find a suitable candidate later than to give an abusive government like China’s the opportunity to use membership on the Human Rights Council to continue undermining UN human rights mechanisms, Human Rights Watch said.
“All UN regional groups should offer competitive slates for Human Rights Council elections so member states can reject governments with poor human rights records,” Charbonneau said. “Non-competitive UN votes make a mockery of the word ‘election.’”
With regard to Cuba, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported in 2022 that Cuban state agents engage in “systematic repression” of peaceful protesters and dissidents, and that the government has committed “massive, serious and systematic violations of human rights.” UN human rights experts have similarly reported on patterns of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture in Cuba. Human rights organizations have documented hundreds of cases of political prisoners – protesters, critics, journalists, independent artists, and opposition leaders -- detained for exercising their basic human rights.
Burundi is running on Africa’s noncompetitive slate. Serious human rights violations and impunity for the abusers persist in Burundi. Burundian authorities have demonstrated their disregard for the international human rights system by refusing to cooperate with the UN special rapporteur. In July 2023, its delegation walked out of its review by the Human Rights Committee, which monitors the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, apparently protesting the presence of a duly accredited Burundian human rights defender.
In Peru, the government has failed to uphold judicial independence and the separation of powers, while security forces used excessive force in late 2022 and early 2023 against protesters, resulting in the deaths of 49 people. In Brazil, the problem of police abuse was highlighted by the police’s killing of more than 6,400 people—83 percent of them Black—in 2022. The Brazilian government should take decisive measures to end police violence and the impunity for abuses.
In 2023, the Dominican Republic sent tens of thousands of Haitians back to violence-ridden Haiti, where their lives are at risk. In Indonesia, the government should remove discriminatory, Sharia-inspired local regulations imposed on gender, religious and sexual minorities. The Malawi government has detained and forcibly relocated refugees and asylum seekers across the country.
“UN member states should signal to the world that the worst human rights violators don’t belong on the UN’s top rights body,” Charbonneau said. “Those violators that secure a seat – whether through a lack of competition or other means, should not deter the Human Right Council from shining a spotlight on their own abuses.”