Apart from Russia and China, Pakistan and Cuba were also elected to the council despite their poor image as defenders of human rights.
On Tuesday, October 13, Russia and China were elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), much to the dismay of several human rights groups as the two countries are widely believed to have dubious human rights records.
Saudi Arabia was expected to win a place on the 47-seat body but failed to make the cut, delivering a severe blow to the country’s efforts to improve its image on the human rights front.
Cuba and Pakistan were also elected to the council despite their poor image as defenders of human rights.
The UN General Assembly elections aimed to fill 15 seats in the 47-nation council through a secret ballot vote conducted at the UN headquarters in New York. The openings belonged to five regions – Africa, Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe, Latin America-Caribbean and Western Europe.
France and the UK were elected unopposed to represent Western Europe.
Asia-Pacific was the only contested region in the 2020 elections with China and Saudi Arabia engaged in a five-way race with Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Nepal for four seats.
China won 139 votes, down from its previous tally of 180 votes in 2016, which was the last time it stood for a seat in its group.
Saudi Arabia, which currently heads the G20, could only manage 90 votes to claim the fifth spot in the group and was beaten by Nepal which got 150 votes.
The new members will serve for a term of three years, starting January 2021.
Before the vote, UN Watch, an independent human rights group based in Geneva, which opposed the inclusion of Russia, China and Saudi Arabia to the UNHRC, said, “The presence of abusers on the Council undermines the Council’s legitimacy and contradicts its own charter.”
“Electing these dictatorships as UN judges on human rights is like making a gang of arsonists into the fire brigade,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleged that both Saudi Arabia and China had a history of using their membership in the council “to prevent scrutiny of their abuses and those by their allies.”
“Serial rights abusers should not be rewarded with seats on the Human Rights Council,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at HRW.
China and Russia joining the UNHRC garners massive criticism
Prior to the vote on Tuesday, Neuer criticized China’s return to the UNHRC stating it was “morally obscene” for China to find a place on the council.
At a UN Watch event, Yang Jianli, president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China and a former political prisoner, said, “China was involved in the annihilation of political freedom in Hong Kong. By any standards China has grossly abused the UN human rights founding principles. If this were an election for a UN human rights abusers council, it would be more than proper to vote for China, since it leads the world in violating human rights.”
China has received scathing criticism in recent months over its alleged persecution of Uighur Muslims in the far western Xinjiang region and the imposition of a controversial new national security law in Hong Kong.
In September, China released a white paper, the first-of-its-kind, claiming that “vocational training” was provided to nearly 1.3 million workers in Xinjiang every year on average from 2014 to 2019. Among those workers, 451,400 belonged to the impoverished southern Xinjiang region with poor access to education and inadequate job skills, which according to Beijing, was because the residents were influenced by “extremist thoughts.”
However, many observers alleged that the white paper from the State Council – China’s cabinet, was probably the first time that Beijing had “indirectly acknowledged” the number of ethnic Muslim minorities held captive in internment camps.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) revealed in September that China was running more than 380 suspected detention centers in Xinjiang, an allegation which Beijing denied.
Last week, a German-led group of 39 countries including the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan, expressed grave concern over the condition of Uighurs in Xinjiang and the political situation in Hong Kong.
“We are gravely concerned about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and the recent developments in Hong Kong,” said Christoph Heusgen, Germany’s UN ambassador.
Many human rights activists consider that Russia’s role in war-torn Syria and its invasion of Ukraine makes it a peculiar choice to be a part of the UNHRC. Intolerance towards political dissent and curbs on media freedom are the other factors that raise questions over Russia’s membership in the council.
Before Russia got reelected to the council, Bill Browder – a US financier and political activist who founded the Global Magnitsky Justice campaign following the death of his Russian adviser, Sergei Magnitsky, in 2009 after Magnitsky was allegedly jailed, tortured and denied medical treatment by Russian officials – stated that Russia getting a seat in the UNHRC would mark a day “when the UN was entirely discredited.”
Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza, a Russian dissident and a popular democracy activist, emphasized that the UN expects member nations in the council to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”
“If this is to have any meaning the worst abusers of human rights should not be allowed to be given a seal of approval,” said Kara-Murza.
Referring to the fact that in the past even dictatorial regimes such as those in Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had been elected to the council, Kara-Murza, before Russia’s reelection, said, “Yet we still find it astonishing that Russia is considered a legitimate candidate let alone that it is likely to be elected.”
Garry Kasparov, the legendary Russian chess champion and a prominent human rights activist, called the inclusion of Russia and China in the council a “joke.”
The Saudi defeat
Saudi Arabia’s defeat reportedly followed comprehensive lobbying from several human rights organizations, which had consistently been warning against the election of China, Russia and Saudi Arabia to the council at the same time to safeguard the council’s credibility given the countries’ track records.
Expressing his disappointment at the potential reelection of Saudi Arabia to the UNHRC, an exiled Saudi national Taha al-Hajji wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that “If Saudi Arabia succeeds, it will show the world that as long as a state has powerful friends and a limitless public relations budget, it can torture and execute its people, including children, with impunity.”
Saudi Arabia was previously a member of the UNHRC until 2019. In September, the country faced strong condemnation from the global community before the council over its alleged human rights violations, including reports of torture, abduction and arbitrary detention.
Recently, many nations demanded accountability from Saudi authorities over the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Some rights-campaigners have regularly accused Saudi Arabia of committing war crimes against civilians in Yemen. More than 100,000 people have reportedly been killed and over three million have been rendered homeless in Yemen due to the conflict, which is regarded as the world’s worst current humanitarian crisis.
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