United Nations

On the 9th of October, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) held elections that resulted in the addition of several controversial member states to the body.  The Philippines, Bahrain, Cameroon, and Eritrea have each committed many human rights violations, which will be touched on later, and are among the most egregious offenders of the 10 new countries on the UNHRC. In light of these recent appointments, one is forced to ask the question – how can prolific human rights abusers come to serve on the highest body that seeks to uphold and entrench these sacrosanct rights?

Such lackadaisical appointments present a challenge to the institutional legitimacy of the Human Rights Council and the UN. Additionally, these offenders challenge the ability of the UN to reach its own goals and accomplish its mission as set out by the institution’s self-created Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  

We begin with arguably one of the baddest of the bunch – when it comes to human rights abuses, no country has been more in the spotlight recently than the Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte has plunged his country into an ever-worsening human rights crisis with his brutal war on drugs. The main feature of Duterte’s campaign is extrajudicial killings – more than 12,000 Filipinos have been killed thus far. The police crusade against drugs engages in vigilantism, where suspicious people are simply killed, with drugs or guns later planted on the body to justify the murder. In addition, the Filipino leader has no patience for human rights groups. Duterte has been quoted saying, in reference to human rights advocates: “If they are obstructing justice, shoot them.” With such a “spotless” human rights record, one can clearly see the justification and value in having the Philippines on the UNHRC.

Alongside the Philippines, Eritrea is among the new contentious additions. Under the dictatorship of President Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea is one of the most repressive and worst human rights offenders in the world. As per Human Rights Watch: “It has no legislature, no independent civil society organizations or media outlets, and no independent judiciary. The government restricts religious freedoms, banning all but four groups.” The country has indefinite conscription for all citizens between the age of 18-50, with the majority of these conscripts serving in the military.

This compulsory service falls just short of full-blown slavery – life for the enlisted consists of 70+ hour work weeks, years without being permitted to return home, insufficient food, and inadequate pay. Oftentimes, the only chance for Eritreans to have any semblance of freedom is to attempt to flee the country. Despite signing a recent peace deal reached with Ethiopia, ending a 15-year war, the Eritrean government has done little to follow through with its promise of reducing conscription – or releasing the thousands of political prisoners contained in the nation’s overcrowded jails. Once again, the addition of a country to the UNHRC further delegitimizes the efficacy and credibility of the institution. Frankly, Eritrea’s membership on the Council is laughable.

Another notorious human rights abuser that does not deserve a seat on the Council is Saudi Arabia. Considering its poor human rights record, as well as the more recent Khashoggi murder, the Kingdom should most certainly not be given a platform in the human rights arena. Bahrain, another member of the council, has poor human rights conditions as well – just last year, the sole remaining independent newspaper was shut down. Venezuela has had three million of its citizens leave the country since 2014, largely due to Venezuela’s political and economic issues, while dismal human rights violations committed during this crisis contributed to the mass exodus. In Egypt, human rights groups have been violently and brutally repressed – leading NGOs to unsuccessfully petition the UNHRC for help – the very same UNHRC that Egypt sits on. Conflict of interest?

If the United Nations Human Rights Council were a small task force with little purpose, little efficacy, and little power, this issue may be less pressing – but it isn’t. The Human Rights Council is the hallmark of the United Nations, with the purpose of enforcing and ensuring high human rights standards worldwide. The Human Rights Council is an “inter-governmental body within the United Nations system made up of 47 States responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe.” The election of such unsuitable member states to the Council makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the Human Rights Council to achieve such a goal.

The delegitimization of the UNHRC by its membership has the consequent effect of reducing the legitimacy of the United Nations as a whole. Human rights are one of the three pillars that the UN considers its primary mandates. If one of these pillars is compromised, the authority of the UN is likewise affected. If norms are changing, and human rights offenders are holding considerable influence in the Council, then the SDGs that the United Nations set out for itself in 2015 are at risk of not being fulfilled.

There are 17 SDGs, and many of them cannot be achieved without the proper institution of human rights. Among these goals are gender equality (#5), the establishment of sustainable consumption and production patterns (#12), and the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development (#16). Saudi Arabia, for example, is one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to gender equality. When the member states themselves eschew the goals of the SDGs, it makes them effectively unattainable.

An ineffective and poorly represented Human Rights Council is not only an embarrassment to the institution but a direct hindrance to the United Nations as a whole. The inclusion of these member states undermines the credibility of the UN and renders the achievement of many of the 17 SDGs unlikely, if not impossible. An organization is only as effective as its ability to realize its own will. The UN needs to seriously reconsider the structure of the Human Rights Council, lest the broken representation system that currently divides it persists and the Council backslides further.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Feature image by Kim Haughton via Flickr Creative Commons.