When the United Nations General Assembly held its annual election for seats on the Human Rights Council last October, five countries in the Asia regional group vied for four open seats, including two of the world’s most notorious rights abusers, Saudi Arabia and China. Member states took notice. In the secret ballot vote, the Saudis lost and the Chinese government scraped by for the last seat.
When offered a choice, governments can make the right decision. It happened in 2016 as well, when Russia failed to win a seat on the Human Rights Council thanks to competition. UN elections should always have competitive slates so governments can vote against unfit candidates with poor rights records.
But last week, the 54 member countries of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) did things the wrong way by holding uncompetitive elections. The result was undeserved prizes to abusive governments, notably Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Myanmar and China, by awarding them seats on UN bodies linked to women’s rights.
Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, and China were elected to the Commission on the Status of Women. Iran, Egypt and Pakistan have deplorable women’s rights records and shouldn’t be commission decision-makers. Beijing sees itself as a champion of women’s rights but is responsible for grave abuses against Turkic Muslim women in Xinjiang, where Human Rights Watch found that Chinese authorities are committing crimes against humanity. The secret ballot obscures who voted for Iran, Pakistan, and China, but the final tally indicates that some Western governments backed them. There only was a ballot on the Asia slate, which normally are approved by acclamation, because the US called for a vote.
In another appalling result, Myanmar was elected by consensus to the board of the UN Population Fund, the agency responsible for reproductive and maternal health. Myanmar’s military, which seized power in a February 1 coup and has killed hundreds of pro-democracy protesters, carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in 2017 that included widespread rape and other sexual violence.
UN delegations shouldn’t be giving credibility to abusive states by rewarding them with human rights posts. The records of the five should now receive extra scrutiny. In the future, UN member states should avoid voting for abusive governments whenever possible and insist on competitive slates for all.
Anything less only undermines the standing of UN bodies on human rights.