Q&A on Human Rights Council elections

Q. What is the UN Human Rights Council?

A. The Council is the main UN body for promoting and protecting human rights. It consists of 47 countries, apportioned among the five regional groups of UN members. The Council meets in Geneva to advance human rights norms, recommend new treaties, address human rights violations in specific countries, and appoint experts to monitor specific countries and the observance of particular rights.

Q. What are the membership standards for Council members?

A. Human Rights Council members are required to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights,” and to “fully cooperate with the Council.”

Q. How are the members of the Council elected?

A. Each May, the UN General Assembly elects one-third of the Council members for three-year terms. In electing countries to the Council, UN member states are to “take into account the contribution countries will make to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto.” To win election, candidates must both win an absolute majority of the 192 UN members (97 votes) and be one of the highest vote winners for the open seats allocated to their region.

Q. How does the Council differ from the former UN Commission on Human Rights?

A. Candidates for the former Commission were put forward by regional groups and rubber-stamped by the 54-member UN Economic and Social Council. The Commission became increasingly discredited as it included many of the worst violator states, which used their seats to block scrutiny of violations.

By contrast, election to the Council requires an affirmative vote of 97 of the 192 members of the General Assembly. Also, governments are to consider a candidate’s human rights record, pledges and commitments in making and writing in their choices. The Council also must regularly scrutinize the human rights records of all UN members under a new “universal periodic review” procedure, potentially avoiding the double standards of which the Commission was guilty. The Council meets at least three times a year and can call special sessions to consider urgent situations with the support of one-third of its members. Unlike the Commission, members of the Council can also be suspended for gross and systematic violations of human rights by a two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly by present and voting states.

Q. Why are human rights organizations calling for competitive elections?

A. We believe the requirement that states take into account candidates’ human rights records underscores the spirit of the resolution creating the Council: that UN Member States should be given a real choice in elections to select members with the strongest commitment to the promoting and protecting human rights and to cooperating with the Council. We therefore urge states with a commitment to human rights to present their candidacies individually and to support and encourage competition, ensuring there are more states seeking election to the Council than seats allocated to the regional group. This process will allow the international community a meaningful choice of candidates most committed to human rights.

Competitive elections are essential to achieving improved membership at the Human Rights Council and a stronger, more effective HRC. They also encourage states to make stronger pledges to improve human rights and to commit themselves to more ambitious initiatives.

The usefulness of competitive elections has already been demonstrated:

  • In 2006, Iran and Venezuela both failed in their efforts to become Council members when forced to compete on their human rights records with other states in their region.
  • In 2007, the candidacy of Belarus was unsuccessful after Bosnia and Herzegovina entered the race in Eastern Europe, providing a choice to the General Assembly and forcing Belarus to compete on its human rights record.
  • In 2008, in a competitive election among Asian states, Sri Lanka was defeated following a campaign by non-governmental organizations led by Sri Lankan human rights defenders that focused on its poor human rights record and failure to cooperate with Human Rights Council experts.

Q. Why are human rights groups involving themselves in the Council elections?

A. Since the creation of the Human Rights Council in 2006, nongovernmental organizations in the field of human rights from around the world have campaigned to ensure that the Council elections result in the selection of member states that “fully cooperate with the Council” and “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights,” as required by General Assembly resolution 60/251 establishing the Council. With this goal in mind, we have advocated competitive elections. In past years, we have successfully worked to defeat the candidacies of several states that are abusive of human rights.

We believe our involvement encourages UN member nations to evaluate the human rights records of each candidate and to cast their ballots based on the guidance set forth in paragraph 8 of the General Assembly resolution.

What should a member of the General Assembly do when a candidate does not meet membership criteria and the election in the region is not competitive?

A. The requirement of an absolute majority of the full UN membership (97 votes) to win election to the Council was designed to avoid the election of abusive states. As they “take into account the contribution countries will make to the promotion and protection of human rights,” UN Member States should decline to support countries with poor human rights records, and should only vote for countries likely to use their Council membership to promote human rights.