By Santiago Losada
On October 28, the United Nations General Assembly voted by secret ballot to elect 14 new states to serve on the Human Rights Council. As inter-governmental body within the U.N., the 47-member council is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights all over the world. The Geneva-based council is in charge of addressing human rights violations and makes recommendations through U.N. resolutions, according to the UN News Centre. All members are elected by the General Assembly in New York before meeting to discuss all thematic human rights issues and situations that require its attention throughout the year.
When it came to electing countries to represent Eastern Europe, The New York Times reported that Russia narrowly lost its seat on the council to Croatia and Hungary, signaling international dismay with the military power’s actions in Syria. This is shocking because it is the first time in which a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council lost its seat. When asked about whether Syria had anything to do with the vote, Russian Ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, declined to answer and said “we need a break.” To him, Croatia and Hungary are not as in tune with international diplomacy as Russia is.
A report from The Wall Street Journal claims that in recent times, there have been efforts to shame and isolate Russia for supporting Syria’s regime in the besieged city of Aleppo. During meetings with the Security Council and the Human Rights Council, many member-states said that the horrors committed in Aleppo by Syria and its allies, like Russia, amount to war crimes. Although it does not have the authority to take action, the council can exert pressure on the violating country as well as set up social rapporteurs to investigate and report the abuses.
Many believe that the vote was unfair because big human rights violators, like Saudi Arabia, smoothly sailed past the vote to win another three-year seat. Many non-governmental human rights organizations claim that the organization has been taken over by oppressive regimes which mainly seek to continue their own agendas and deflect criticism from others.
According to Russia Today, the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International published a joint statement in which they condemn Saudi Arabia for its appalling human rights record. Last year, Saudi Arabia carried out 157 domestic executions and is expected to continue at a similar pace this year. Women do not enjoy autonomy and equal status before the law and criticizers of the regime are often detained.
The executive director of U.N. Watch, Hillel Neuer believes that the non-election of Russia into the council shows that the nations of the world have the ability to reject human rights abusers. This makes the election of countries like Saudi Arabia, China and Cuba even more unbelievable.
The renewal of Saudi Arabia’s seat quickly triggered criticism from Iran. According to ABC News, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi stated that Saudi Arabia’s seat on the council shows that human rights is merely a direction of political interests. Iran has no diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and both countries support opposite sides in regional conflicts, such as Yemen.