Myth 1: Some diplomats, UN officials and NGO activists claim that membership to the Council will serve as an incentive to countries with poor human rights records to improve.
Truth: Wrong. The Human Rights Council’s predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, worked alongside this notion and was doomed, defunct and replaced in 2006 by the Human Rights Council.
In his report In Larger Freedom suggesting reform of the Commission, Kofi Annan wrote: “states have sought membership of the Commission not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others. As a result, a credibility deficit has developed, which casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole.”
And thus, the founding resolution of the Council, 60/251, decided that “members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” This does not leave any place for violators.
Myth 2: OK. But by serving in the Human Rights Council, countries’ human rights records improve.
Truth: Wrong. Libya was elected to the Human Rights Council in 2011, but that did not stop Qaddafi from killing his own people. Libya’s human rights conditions therefore, did not improve by being a member of the Council. And it was Libya’s hypocritical chairmanship of the Commission in 2003 that led the world to intensify its calls for reform.
Indeed, electing gross human rights abusers to the Council sends exactly the opposite signal. For example, China is the only country that keeps a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, behind bars. Yet, China won a Council seat in 2013 and used their election for propaganda purposes. Their Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, Wang Min, declared: “The Chinese government attaches great importance to the promotion and protection of human rights. It has made remarkable achievements and has vigorously developed international cooperation in the field of human rights.” By electing China, the world sends the signal that the human rights situation in China is satisfactory and the peaceful struggle of Liu and the other political prisoners is in vain.
Even more so, when abusers become members of the Human Rights Council, their actions tend to be counterproductive and undermine the progress that has been achieved so far. Strategies they use include shielding abusers from criticism, promoting counterproductive resolutions which dilute the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, trying to micromanage the OHCHR and the Special Procedures, and restricting the space for civil society.
Myth 3: But what do you want? The Human Rights Council cannot solely be comprised of democracies…
Truth: Wrong. We are not speaking about a Human Rights Council that should be completely comprised of Nordic democracies, but of a Council where countries qualify with a minimum standard of human rights. These countries would add value and their membership would serve as an incentive to promote and protect human rights at home. Other that the world’s democracies, there is a big number of countries which genuinely try to make the transition and improve their human rights conditions.
There is a small group of gross human rights abusers, including China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Iran, Sudan, Syria and North Korea, countries whose membership is a threat to their council and its purpose.
For example, they use the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) for their own propaganda reasons. They get allies to praise their report and implementations, and use GONGOs (Government Organized Non-governmental Organizations) to affirm the free civil society and rights of their citizens. These are the kinds of countries that the founders deemed that they have no place within the Human Rights Council.