SIDEBAR: The UN accused of letting in abusers in the Human Rights Council

By Mercy B. Idindili

On Friday, October 12,  the UN General Assembly (GA) voted for 18 countries to fill the 18 vacant seats in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). However, due to the conduct of the elections and the poor human rights records of certain elected countries such as the Philippines and Eritrea, backlash arose from various human rights groups and the United States.

The UNHRC is a UN organ, consisting of 47 members elected by the GA from five regional groups, and is responsible for the promotion of human rights around the world. The UNHRC also reviews and addresses complaints from individuals, groups and organizations about human rights violations within their countries.

As pointed out by many, certain elected member states fall short of addressing domestic human rights abuses. In fact, 6 of the 18 countries elected are classified by the Human Rights Watch as human rights abusers: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Somalia, Cameroon, Eritrea and Philippines. In addition, some, such as the Philippines and Bahrain, exhibit a history of resisting cooperation with the UN in addressing these violations. When the GA granted council seats to countries with continued negligence, many thought that this seemed like an undeserved reward.

However, including such countries within the UNHRC may have certain benefits. Although a seat on the UNHRC does not ensure that countries will be more responsible in addressing domestic human rights violations, it enables them to participate in the conversation; alienating them may lead to a further lack of cooperation with the UNHRC and other human rights groups. The UNHRC may be stronger now than it would be without participation from countries with poor human rights records.

The UNHRC elections received more criticism due to their non-competitive nature as only 18 candidates competed for the 18 vacant seats on the council. The lack of competition ensured that countries with poor human rights records won seats as they ran uncontested. As stated by Louis Charbonneau, the Director of the Human Rights Watch, “the UN should have pushed candidates to demonstrate they are worthy of joining the council, but it instead put forward a non-competitive vote that makes a mockery of the word ‘election.’” In such a non-competitive election, the only way the GA could ensure that countries with poor human rights records failed to win seats would be by refusing them as candidates in the first place. However, according to Krishnadev Calamur in The Atlantic, the geographical quota system of selecting candidates makes it impossible to have many candidates with good human rights records because very few of the geographical regions have countries with “democracies or the incentive to promote human rights.”

The success of the Human Rights Council, like that of any other UN body, depends upon its members. Its members give the body legitimacy and the power to operate worldwide. For the UNHRC resolutions to carry weight amongst human rights violators, the council should be a representative of what it stands for. It is unlikely for human rights violators to  listen to calls from fellow human rights violators to address their domestic human rights crises. To possibly remedy this, the GA should ensure that candidates for UNHRC membership have achieved a specified minimum level of domestic human rights advocacy. This measure is both inclusive of countries with human rights violations that are being addressed, enabling maximum cooperation with the council, while blocking countries with ongoing larger scale human rights crises from entering the UNHRC.   

In a day and age with many human rights crises occurring all of the world, the UNHRC has a very big role to play in ensuring that such crises are addressed before they increase in scale. Only time will tell whether the UNHRC can work efficiently with human rights abusers as members, and perhaps in the future, the GA will draw lessons on the October 12th elections and its consequences as it creates measures to strengthen the council.

Mercy is a first-year in Ezra Stiles. You can contact her at